on September 8, 2001
Camille Bacon-Smith, an academic folklore specialist, has spent almost two decades applying the methods of ethnographical research to the subculture that has grown up around science fiction literature, movies and artwork. She regularly attends SF conventions, reads fanzines, interviews both leaders and rank-and-file of the science fiction community and otherwise investigates Fandom in much the same way that Margaret Mead studied Samoa. "Science Fiction Culture" is the summation of her efforts. As one of the natives under scrutiny (being a long-time science fiction fan and past chairman of the World Science Fiction Convention), I read it with interest. Unhappily, though, it is one of those books that tries to do far too much and therefore accomplishes almost nothing.
If I wished to be denigratory, it would be easy to utilize "insider" knowledge to catalogue the book's numerous errors of fact. On the one page that mentions my own name, I found five mistakes. None of them is serious (two surnames are misspelled, two people are assigned to the wrong home towns, one very well-known fan - universally referred to as "Peggy Rae" - is called "Peggy"), but they do suggest that the author is not in total command of her material. She is particularly weak on the development of Fandom before her own contact with it. To take an important example, she guesses that the sudden growth in the size of the World Science Fiction Convention in the 1960's resulted from the entry into Fandom of the "counterculture", whereas the initial spurt (from 850 members in 1966 to over 1,500 in 1967) is readily explained by the advent of the original "Star Trek" television series. The next abrupt doubling, between 1977 and 1978, followed closely on the release of "Star Wars".
In addition, like any other stranger in a strange land, the author is at the mercy of her informants, who sometimes feed her biased information and once in a while, it appears, simply pull her leg. Her account of the bidding for the 1993 Worldcon reflects only the views of the successful bid and unfairly dismisses its opponents as motivated by resentment over being left out of leadership roles. (She also muddles the chronology of the contest.) As an instance of leg pulling, someone has given her the idea that a famous 1940's diatribe, which, among much else, deplored the (alleged and improbable) influence of homosexuals in Fandom, is a scandalous secret. This "secret" is, in fact, so familiar that another outsider, mystery writer Sharyn McCrumb, introduced a lightly fictionalized version into her novel "Zombies of the Gene Pool".
Despite some degree of inaccuracy and dubious interpretation, "Science Fiction Culture" might still be worth an additional star, were it not for three fundamental flaws. First, the author's prose is awkward, jargon-heavy and tedious. Second, she frequently theorizes before assimilating sufficient data and sees only what her theories tell her to see. Third, and most fatally, she devotes only about a third of her text to her nominal subject, an ethnographical investigation of Fandom. For want of space, vast reaches of pertinent data are virtually ignored (e. g., fanzine publishing and Fandom outside the United States) or greatly oversimplified (e. g., conventions other than Worldcons). The author apologizes for some of her omissions. It apparently does not occur to her that she could have avoided major gaps by writing a better focused book.
The sections peripheral to Fandom consist of, first, lamentations on the travails of progressively chic groups (women, homosexuals, youth, sadomasochists) as they try to enter a supposedly white, male domain and, second, miscellaneous observations on the state of science fiction publishing. The "travails" aren't very interesting. As the author concedes, women were integrated into Fandom decades ago and homosexuals have encountered little resistance. The other groups that she discusses (by "youth", it should be noted, she means the minuscule "goth" subculture, not people who are chronologically young) occasionally hang out at science fiction conventions but seem quite uninterested in associating with anyone beyond their own circles.
Worthwhile accounts of "outsiders trying to become insiders" could be written about the relationship to Fandom of neopagans, libertarians, evangelical Christians or even role playing gamers, and it would be interesting to explore why certain ethnic minorities (blacks, Hispanics, Asians) rarely become fans. "Science Fiction Culture" has nothing to say on any of those topics.
The section on the publishing industry may be of interest to aspiring writers, though a few statements are curious. Is it really common practice, as the author implies, to adopt a pseudonym in mid-career in order to fool chain store computers? I know of one prominent SF writer (Harry Turtledove) who writes historical novels under a pen name (H. N. Turteltaub) for that reason, but are there many other examples? If so, we aren't told about them here.
Except for tenure committees and fans who want to see whether they have made it into the index, it is hard to imagine an audience for this book. It would certainly have been a better work if the author could have cast off the shackles of academic orthodoxy and come to her data, evidently extensive and valuable, with fewer conclusions ready made.
on September 4, 2000
This is, in many ways, an excellent work on a oft-overlooked facet of American culture and society. Yes, there have been many volumes written on SF, but not much on the *culture* that has coalesced around the genre. This is in some ways a pioneering work, especially in its attempts to describe how subgroups within the larger culture are shaping that culture and also making it their own. Bacon-Smith's writing is very clear and to the point, and she interweaves the voices of her subjects into her analysis fairly smoothly. Whether you are a long-time fan or a curious outsider, you will learn a lot from this book.
As both a fan and an anthropologist interested in studying this culture (in essence, kinda studying myself as well!), I recommend this book highly. I gave it four stars rather than five, however, because there were areas where I wished that the author had tightened up her theoretical argument, or had done more work on linkages between what she has bounded as SF culture and inter-related subcultures. I also think more historical background would have enriched her study. Finally, I wanted a stronger sense of what brought the author into this study, and what she gets (besides academic material) from this work.
I will be using the book for a course on the anthropology of "escapist" subcultures, and I think that my students will find at as interesting as I have.