by Camille Bacon-Smith

University of Pennsylvania Press


336pp/$49.95/December 1999

Science Fiction Culture

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

FIAWOL (Fandom Is A Way Of Life) has long been a rallying cry for science fiction fans. In her study Science Fiction Culture, Camille Bacon-Smith brings a sociologist’s perspective to the strange activities and relationships SF fans have with the genre and each other. However, Science Fiction Studies is not just a dry academic monograph. Bacon-Smith has managed to fill the book with anecdotes gleaned from talking to science fiction fans and authors.

Bacon-Smith opens with a brief history of science fiction fandom, which will be familiar to most fans, but provides a required background for the academic community at which the book is targeted and other non-fans. She keeps the history brief and livens it up with interviews and quotes from noted science fiction fans, such as Ben Yalow or Peggy Rae Pavlat, names which will mean a lot to members of fandom and be completely unrecognized outside the community.

Bacon-Smith is very upfront in the introduction explaining that she has omitted any discussion of such activities as role-playing, filking, fanzines and media fandom because it is either covered in other works or she felt she did not have the space to adequately examine these phenomenon in the current work. However, by acknowledging their existence, she draws attention to the wide variety of activities which can make up fandom.

Science Fiction Culture is presented not as the final word in the description of fandom, but rather as a starting point, which is an important distinction.   Bacon-Smith's familiarity with fandom seems to be rooted in fandom as it exists along the East Coast of the United States.  While Bacon-Smith acknowledges that fandom is spread across the continent and differs from region to region, she does not show those differences, instead focusing on the conventions from Florida through Boston.

Throughout the book, Bacon-Smith seems to assume her reader will have a familiarity with fandom in general.  In the second section of the book, she explores groups which are outside the traditional white male face of fandom and tries to see how they are accepted (or rejected) by the larger mass of fandom.  These groups include women, homosexuals and youth culture.  In trying to show their role within fandom, Bacon-Smith looks at each group from inside, interviewing members of each group.   However, and especially with the youth culture, Bacon-Smith does not really examine how the "traditional fandom" perceives and reacts to these "outsiders," but rather the "outsider's" perceptions of how they are treated.

Most of Bacon-Smith's research seems to come from a period ending around 1993.   While the trends and issues which she discusses are certainly still a part of science fiction fandom in 1999, the fact that so many of the interviews were conducted in 1992 or 1993 gives the book a slightly dated feel.  This is, I presume, less the fault of the author than it is a sign of academic publication.

Science Fiction Culture does a good job of portraying the nature of fandom and can give a great deal of insight into the reasons people join fandom, even for people who have been active in fandom for several years.  However, it is, as Bacon-Smith said, the beginning of a conversation.  She has left roadsigns pointing in a wide variety of directions which can, and should, be further studied.

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