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Capclave 2002: Whither the Fen?

 

The door eased open. Four science fiction and fantasy authors seated at the table in front of the conference room froze as if frightened of being caught looking hopeful. Another tardy con-goer slunk into the room. His presence upped the number of audience members to four.

According to the program, the 6 p.m., Friday panel -- the first of Capclave 2002, the October 18-20 convention of the Washington Science Fiction Association (WSFA) -- would focus on neglected authors. But it took so long to assemble an audience that panel participants started to wonder just who those "neglected authors" were.

Could the panelists ascribe the light attendance to the difficulties of a Friday evening commute from Government Land to the Hilton in Silver Spring, Md.? Should they blame it on the "Maryland sniper," then still a mystery very much at large? Why did talented, award-winning authors slip into obscurity, sometimes during their own lifetimes?

(Left to right) Analog editor Stan Schmidt, writer Bud Sparhawk, Artemis editor Ian Randal Strock, and Weird Tales editor Darrell Schweitzer discuss the future of the short story at Capclave 2002. (All photos by Jean Marie Ward)

"Is it a question of the audience growing old and dissipating?" panelist, author and Capclave Artist Guest of Honor Alexis Gilliland asked. The graying audience members, who now numbered close to 20, exchanged quick, nervous smiles.

Sniper dread and the graying of the Fen (the insider name for science fiction/fantasy fandom) touched every aspect of the small convention. Con-goers fought their fears of random violence with buttons from the dealers room that read: "No stupid sniper's going to ruin my convention." Nevertheless, for a largely professional crowd in a town that likes to eat, they made relatively few trips to the many eateries within walking distance of the hotel. The comparative lack of high school, college and twenty-something participants, on the other hand, made its way to nearly every conversation.

Weird Tales editor Darrell Schweitzer noted in a panel on the future of the short story, "These days a 'young, new writer' is anyone under 45 who hasn't been selling for 20 years. There are very few under 30." Among those now writing for Weird Tales, he added, "The oldest we have would be 84."

Interesting statistics for an era Schweitzer describes as a golden age for small magazines. Chain bookstores with their massive magazine racks and generous display policies provide a measure of security, if not profitability, to magazines spanning every aspect of popular culture. But are tomorrow's readers -- and writers and artists -- reading Analog, Artemis and Weird Tales today? If not, how do you entice them into the SF/fantasy culture represented by these magazines and Capclave?

This question occupies editors and publishers of every genre as they watch the big spenders of the Baby Boom generation ease towards fixed income retirement. The publishing industry shares a consensus that the market will evolve, but the nature of that evolution remains anybody's guess. The Internet model of sites like Fictionwise.com appears to point to a smorgasbord of shorter works. At the same time, younger readers seem to prefer series novels that provide a reading experience similar to episodic television, including TV's emphasis on brand identity. They also form the bulk of the audience for franchise novels based on current TV series.

But among genre fans, only the Fen seems concerned with passing the torch to the next generation. Part of this concern might stem from the future focus of the science fiction and fantasy genre. However, the need to reach out to new fans may arise from a simple need to connect. Many science fiction and fantasy fans considered themselves outsiders growing up. They remember their discovery of organized fandom as an epiphany, one which they feel compelled to share.

Capclave 2002 Chairman Michael Nelson (left) toasts con guests of honor Alexis Gilliland (center) and Stan Schmidt at an informal party for all con attendees on the evening of Oct. 19. Capclave stands for "Capital Conclave." The WSFA chose to call their annual gathering a conclave rather than a convention, because it sounded friendlier. The notion of friendliness extends to organization meetings, often held in Gilliland's house.

You'd think the process of attracting new SF fans would be dead easy. The strong SF/fantasy bent of current movies and television series predispose younger audiences towards the genre. The vigor of fan fiction sites (despite frequent corporate efforts to suppress them) and the proliferation of fan-related art attest to the never ending desire to create.

Small conventions offer aspiring writers and artists the best access to potential mentors and employers. Capclave 2002, for example, hosted three top genre editors: Analog editor and guest of honor Stanley Schmidt, Artemis editor Ian Randal Strock and Weird Tales editor Darrell Schweitzer. (The program advertised five, but a new baby and a bad back sidelined Tor editor David Hartwell and Science Fiction Weekly editor Scott Edelman, respectively.)

Capclave's guest list of over 25 published writers included Peter Heck, who in addition to his writing credits spent a number of years editing for Ace Books and Waldenbooks' SF/fantasy and mystery newsletters. Heck's wife, Jane Jewell, serves as the executive director of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, the genre's professional organization.

To put this in perspective, convention attendance hovered somewhere around a hundred participants on Saturday and Sunday. The high professional to fan ratio not only increased the chance of making contact, it encouraged conversation -- and story pitches. In his guest of honor panel, Stan Schmidt admitted he once bought a new writer's story as the result of a chance dinner conversation.

The intimate scale of the con also encouraged newcomer participation in rituals such as the ceremonial reading of The Eye of Argon, purported to be the worst science fiction story ever written. The Eye of Argon readings are competitive events. Whoever can get the furthest without laughing wins. Schweitzer, who spent considerable time studying and collating the not-so-sacred texts, couldn't recall anyone who managed a straight-faced read of more than 18 of the story's roughly 77 pages. Most people start howling in the middle of the first sentence.

Ktong (Robert Hole, left) and Rawan (Aimee Hole) represented the Imperial Klingon Battlefleet, a volunteer Star Trek fan club whose members appear and perform as Klingons at local cons and charity events. They provided a grace note of interactive fantasy at the otherwise somber con.

On the flip side, not everyone wanted to emphasize fandom's frivolous side. A number of writers and fans argued that anyone who wanted to join their "club" needed to play by their rules. They talked down Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the many iterations of Star Trek, then wondered why the dozen or so under-thirties turned to the writers who shared their interests. Several fans created a court around newcomer Tee Morris (Morevi: the Chronicles of Rafe and Askana) because he "wasn't stuffy like some of the other writers." Annette Klause, Will Ludwigsen and Lawrence Watt-Evans also won new fans with their freewheeling approaches to popular culture.

Aspiring artists found little to inspire them, despite the encouraging presence of Hugo Award-winning fan artist Gilliland. Capclave 2002 lacked an artshow. Even Gilliland's art saw display only in the pages of the con program book.

The black-and-white of text and the gray of a cloudy fall weekend predominated. Beyond the buttons, the small dealers room offered little in the way of flamboyance or whimsy, and two representatives of the Imperial Klingon Battlefleet wore the only costumes in sight.

But the torch never passes smoothly from one generation to the next. Achievement doesn't mean as much if you don't fight for it and, in the case of the Fen, reinvent the fantasy all over again. The effects of threats like serial snipers fade within months, but the lure of fame -- no matter how you define it -- and ambition goes on forever. Give a person who wants to meet their idols or sell a story or paint a cover a chance, and that chance will be taken. Stan Schmidt can attest to that.

"At my first regional con, I spent a lot of time wandering around looking for someone to talk to," Schmidt told the audience to his guest of honor seminar. "That has seldom been a problem since I've become a market."

Click here to learn more about WSFA, Capclave and World Fantasy Con 2003, which will also be hosted by WSFA.

Jean Marie Ward

Readers Respond

The younger fen are alive and well at other conventions. Stellarcon is a good example. It's run by college kids but has been around so long that many of its former student members now bring their kids to the convention.

From the sound of the guests at this convention, I'd say Capclave needs to gear their guests toward readers instead of writers looking for new markets. They also need to bring in enough media series writers to attract fresh fans who need to learn there is reading beyond Buffy and Tred.

Marilynn Byerly