So a lot of conversation is going on at the moment, post-Worldcon, about just how weird the demographics were, and that leads to “I’m tired of all this ageism” and while I am arguably not the most interesting or insightful on that matter, nor do I have a lot of experience with Worldcons, but hey, it’s the Internet, and when did that ever stop anybody?
I will say right now that it was by-and-large an older white con. Tina came along as part of my entourage (She said she’d never been on an entourage before!) and at one point she turned to me and said “Wow. I feel like the youngest person in the room.”
Tina’s in her fifties. I’m thirty-six.
In fact, the topic came up practically every time we talked to somebody–“Wow. Anybody seen a teenager?” Teiran claimed to have, and said they were the only ones who bought anything. The furry contingent sat around the bar shaking our heads. At Anthrocon—and indeed, by standard demographic spread—we are solidly middle-aged. At this con, we felt terrifyingly young. Of all the cons I do (and I have done many, over the years) this was far and away the oldest skew of any of them.
As for the panels—well, going through the program book, we had one on the fifties, one on the sixties, and either eleven or twelve—I lost count, I admit—on Robert E. Howard. I’ll just leave that statement standing there for a bit.
Now, before anybody gets their bowels in an uproar about ageism or about how we’re blaming fandom’s intransigence on old people, let me hastily say that this is a symptom, not necessarily the cause.
We will come back to SF in a minute, in fact. For now, let’s go on to my two other main fandoms, gardening and birdwatching.
Both of these hobbies skew older in a big way. Average ages tend to the fifties, and in practice, when I go to a birding hot spot, I can generally expect that I will be either the youngest person there, the second youngest, or that somebody’s got really well trained children. Birders are usually OLD. The only difference between a bunch of avid birders and a bunch of Worlcon attendees is that one group is wearing binoculars and tends to be in marginally better physical shape. (Again, this is not a reflection on the nature of fandom. If panels occurred on the tops of mountains or the middles of swamps, we might see a similar trend.)
The primary difference, I’d say, is that there are marginally more female birdwatchers, according to the survey I looked up for the purposes of making my point. Otherwise they also tend to be overwhelmingly white*, tend to a somewhat higher than average income, and incidentally are overwhelmingly married.
In gardening, I couldn’t find a good analysis of the racial demographics, but as garden bloggers go, I am on the young end of the spectrum. There are more women. The bloggers tend to be white—this may or may not reflect the demographics of gardening so much as blogging. Certainly the impression of gardeners tends to be of little old ladies with sun hats and dirty gloves.
I have been told, by the small subset of gardeners who read my gardening columns that aren’t already fans, that they admire my “punk-rock” style of gardening. (I have no idea what this means, but I assume it’s a sort of “you’re a weirdo who swears a lot and your bio pic has dyed hair, but your heart is in the right place” thing.) Definitely there is an impression that I am young, and a little out there, but that’s okay.
Now, somebody’s going to yell that birding is nothing like SF fandom, to which I say “Uh-huh. I travel around the country, running into some of the same people each time, doing an obscure thing most people think is really weird and geeky, which involves specialized knowledge and equipment and has its own lingo, dedicated almost entirely to the art of collecting one weird thing. (Bird sightings.) Then we all get together and compare our collections, engage in friendly one-upsmanship about Who Has Seen The Weirdest Thing. Then we tell stories about funny things that happened relative to acquiring said sightings. There are high end fans. There are obscure rules. New sourcebooks come out regularly. We judge each other for unethical behavior. There are clubs and organizations. We feel strongly about it.”
You tell me that’s not like fandom. Go on, do it. Tell me how different it is to stand in line to be at the midnight showing of Star Wars vs. getting up at 3 AM to be at the dawn chorus for the Colima Warbler. Tell me how your specialized knowledge of Lord of the Rings is wildly different than my specialized knowledge of the Ringed Kingfisher. Tell me that my comfort reading of The Essential Earthman and yours of Earthman’s Burden are different. Do it.
Then please hold while I laugh at you. It will take a few minutes for me to finish, so you might want to make a cup of tea.
Gardening? Sure. We have flame wars, did you know that? Oh, we do. Talk to terribly nice people about butterfly bush being invasive and some of them will try to take your head off with a trowel. People have screamed at me for saying that mimosa trees are an invasive thug. There are wars fought over hybrid tea roses. I put my nose up snobbishly at the Stella d’Oro daylily, the Mourning Dove, and people who think Heinlein was the Greatest Author Who Ever Lived, in more or less equal measure.
In fact, my dear doubting reader, as far as age goes, my other two fandoms outrank SF fandom. Audubon’s first volume of Birds of America came out the year before Jules Verne was born. There were fortunes made and lost on collectibles in gardening long before any SF writer was a twinkle in his great-grandfather’s eyes.** SF fandom led to all sorts of scientific advances? How about Mendel and his pea plants and, y’know, genetics? How about the advances (some of them dangerous and disturbing) that arose from learning to extract nitrogen to make fertilizer to bring in a potentially dystopian world of too many people who, nevertheless, we still more or less manage to feed?
These are fandoms. These are people who act like fans, which is to say that they act like people, because much as we’d all like to pretend we’re special and different, we all do pretty much the same things, which is get together with our friends and find things to be excited about and bitch about stuff we think is stupid and go to daggers drawn over relatively insignificant details that an outsider would find really, really ridiculous. The difference between me in a used book store and me in a garden shop and me in the hill country with binoculars is mostly a matter of sunburn and what will eventually need to be watered.
Having said that.
The problem of Worldcon, sez I, and of a subset of SF fandom in general is not that it is full of old people. All my fandoms are full of old people. So far, it hasn’t been a problem. They’ve generally been glad to see me, and I’ve been glad to see them. The guy with the scope who got me my Elegant Tern was probably a contemporary of Jules Verne, and the guy who patiently got me onto a Cerulean Warbler in High Island was weathered like a megalith. And I would put any curmudgeon in SF, no matter how legendary, up against the late Henry Mitchell, who would have turned them into mulch and planted daffodils amongst their bones.
No, the problem is that it is insular and intransigent and run by rules (Robert’s Rules of Order, ahem***) that favor the status quo over change. It is that it has problems, and one of the manifestations of that problem is that young people aren’t showing up.
I am not saying that Worldcon would be infinitely better if it was run by the young whippersnappers. I am saying get your shit together, because whatever’s going on is making sure there are no young whippersnappers. However old birders and gardeners might be as a clump, people are still showing up who aren’t eligible for AARP—and we are welcomed. Gracefully, not grudgingly. (And in fact, among gardeners at least, people under 35 finally caught up with other age groups pretty recently. Whatever they are doing, it is bringing in new blood.)
And also that maybe eleven (or twelve) panels on Robert E. Howard is…well, bizarre, anyway. You go to a garden show, there will likely not be eleven (or twelve) hours dedicated to a single cultivar from 1936. I’m sure Howard’s awesome and all, but does he merit eleven (or twelve) times the number of YA panels, total?
A gaming section so small you could hide it in a matchbox is probably part of the problem. And the fact that we keep getting called “lady authors” is a problem. (We do not call female birders “lady birders” or female gardeners “lady gardeners.” That would be stupid. Other fandoms know this.) Maybe contempt toward all these “media awards” at the Hugos is part of the problem. (Birders, for one, embraced technology hard and fast. We spent the entire trip through hill country on our Sibley apps, checking eBird, which pinpoints the GPS coordinates where a bird has been sighted. You invent a better, lighter pair of waterproof binoculars and birders will fling money so fast it’ll look like a blizzard.)
Maybe an anemic dealer’s room with All The Same Stuff, And Too Much Of It is part of the problem. Gardeners like new stuff. They like old stuff, too—I bow to no one in my love of many heirloom plant breeds, and I plant them for a sense of history and continuity, and don’t get some people started on how much better the old narcissus bulbs were—but you only have to flip through a catalog for “NEW NEW NEW NEW NEW and also NEW!” Birders like new stuff—or dread it, occasionally, as the word comes down that science has now split the Winter Wren into two different species, the Pacific and Winter, and now we have to go find one or the other—but if there are birders going “Damnit, Winter Wrens were good enough for me as a boy, and they ought to be good enough for anybody! I won’t acknowledge the Pacific Wren! That’s stupid!” I have somehow missed it.
Three largely gray fandoms.
In two, I’ve always felt intensely welcome. Total strangers have showered me with cuttings, patiently walked me through fieldmarks on birds that were (to them) extremely common, and cheered with me when I saw a new bird for the first time. Birders will routinely let total strangers sit in their garden to get a rare bird that has showed up at their feeder. Gardeners will spend hours hunting through guides to figure out what kinds of weird flower you’re looking at.
In the third, this past weekend, I sometimes felt like an archaeologist looking at the ruins of a dying civilization. And I love SF fandom. And I want better for it than that. Birding and gardening, as Kevin points out, do not require a secret handshake.
We have got to do better than this.
*The only minority group with equal participation was Native Americans, interestingly enough.
**If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’re clearly too young and obviously don’t know the SMOG handshake. Pffeh. Go ahead, ask. I will shame you for your ignorance, then perhaps condescend to tell you. Maybe. If you’re lucky.****
***”Never get involved with people who fetishize Robert’s Rules of Order,” says my friend Dave, who has been in fandom long enough to know people that were old when I was born.
****Yes, I am joking, and yes, it’s the Dutch Tulip thing.