IN A CULTURAL GALAXY far, far away — and throughout the hallways of the SeaTac Doubletree Inn — starship commanders rubbed elbows with alien babes. Swashbucklers sidled past scientists. Swollen-eyed writers admired fairy wings.
The 29th annual Norwescon, the area's longest-running science fiction/fantasy fan convention, had just launched, and the constellations of fandom's ever-expanding and fragmenting universe already stretched into a series of conference rooms: A retired Boeing engineer explained his work in "Survive the Asteroid!" Gamers slumped over figurines and cards and dice and arcane rules. "Fancy fencers" modeled correct costumes, weaponry and swordplay. In "Fannish Housekeeping," folks learned how to cherish and display mounds of memorabilia with minimal clutter. In "Single Dark Elf Seeks Female," two women gave tips on how to meet — not scare — their gender in online role-playing games. (One guy whined, "But she wasn't a good player.")
The original mission of the annual three-day "con" back in the 1970s was to celebrate science and science-fiction literature. Now it incorporates the outer worlds of subgroups, from fantasy folk singing to dressing up as animals to Dr. Who fanatics to good old-fashioned Trekkies. All these pockets have proliferated with light speed in Seattle's especially fertile creative and wonky soil. It is enough to make a "mundane" — the slur that science-fiction and fantasy mega-fans sling at the rest of us — feel as lost as space junk.
So the logical starting place for a mundane seemed to be a panel discussion titled, "Traits of Fandom," an enlightened attempt at self-examination during a convention celebrating make-believe worlds, alternate realities and what ifs.
Karen Rall, a social worker by day and the fictional "Althaia Lazura" several weekends a year, sat at the front of the room and threw out some broad points from a six-page paper titled, "Fandom as a Cultural Identity." She came straight from an adoption ceremony for three of her child clients and wore a sensible outfit that clashed with the black-leather-strap getup of the woman next to her. The discussion wended its way to the differences between, and perceived pecking order among, fan groups.
With all the specialty interests that modern reality like the Internet has helped foster, science fiction and fantasy fanaticism can sometimes seem as random as mundane life. But Rall accentuated commonalities and camaraderie. As a group, fans call themselves fen, but cruel words like "geek," "nerd" and "weirdo" are terms of endearment when fans utter them to each other. It doesn't matter much in their minds if one is a Goth, a gamer or a Japanese anime "otaku."
On Rall's list is this notion: "Many members' strongest tie is to the fannish community rather than their family of origin." Perhaps that's the meaning behind the standard fandom acronym of FIAWOL (Fandom Is A Way Of Life). Get past homemade costumes and ray guns and numbing theories about time travel and you arrive at the quaint, earth-bound idea of community.
In the fannish culture, it seems that if you get what I get, then you get me. Is that so far-fetched?
RALL GOT INSPIRED three years ago after sitting through yet another cultural-sensitivity session at work. She agreed with the messages: Embracing other cultures is good, assumptions and snap judgments are bad. Yet she wondered why they always left out the cultural difference most relevant to her life.
"I started thinking about how I would define myself in terms of cultural background," she says, "and again and again I returned to the fannish community of science fiction and fantasy conventions, medieval re-creation events and related activities."
Rall entered fandom at 14, when she began attending the University of Washington's Early Entrance Program and went to her first Norwescon. She is 33 now, and the fandom world still forms her "cultural reference points" — the core of her social life.
Growing up, she was fascinated by astronomy and dreamed of being an astronaut, which is what she focused most on at early cons. As she steamed toward her master's degree in social-development psychology at 21, however, she became intrigued with the brain. She considers herself a well-rounded science-fiction and fantasy fan. She has not one but two uniforms from TV's "Babylon 5" series. But she is especially involved with the Society for Creative Anachronism, a group dedicated to re-creating the Middle Ages and Renaissance that followed. Her persona in the society has a whole bio: Althaia is the oldest daughter in a 12th-century merchant family that predominantly funneled textiles from the rural areas around its community down the Neretva River to the Adriatic port of Ragusa.
The anachronism community, she says, is even more cohesive than those who gather at cons. It's cheaper, too. She goes to two or three cons a year, but about 10 anachronism society events. She spends much of her time at them volunteering as a safety monitor for the live armored combat and fencing. She occasionally works as a "herald," announcing the fighters for each round of the competition. Otherwise, she does the usual convention routine of hanging out and yakking.
A friend living in Denmark comes to Norwescon every year, and has been to few weddings that weren't done in medieval garb or other costume.
"This to me is a signpost of how central fannish culture is in my life and that of my friends," she says. "It's where all of our friends are, where many have met their partners, and the framework in which they want to celebrate important events in their lives."
The ranks of science fiction and fantasy fandom include the brilliant and the left out — sometimes one and the same, says Rall. Or as she tells her audience, "It's OK to be smart here. In fact, it's encouraged."
Rall's paper, generalized as it must be, hits high points, from "valued traits" to general attitudes. For instance:
• While there is a strong group identity, an individual's right to think and live as they wish is prized.
• Computer and other information technology fields comprise a big share of fen.
• What you can contribute in terms of knowledge and getting things done goes a long way in defining you.
• Especially eccentric people or those with poor social skills are tolerated and even welcomed as their ability to interact improves.
Rall tells her comrades, "No matter how unusual your interests, you can find someone at a con that shares them and has two other interests that are even stranger."
THE "EVEN STRANGER" is what mundanes focus on, but most fen go to cons for rather "mundane" reasons: to see friends, put faces to e-mails or blogs, laugh and show off their alter-egos. Each year, this area hosts several cons big and small, traditional and obscure. Many have spun off from Norwescon because a group of fans wanted to be more fannish about their particular niche.
Take Sakura-Con and the sea of costumes that wafted up the steep escalators of the Washington State Convention and Trade Center this past spring. Lavender wigs, plaid school-girl skirts, metal bandanas, blue leather jumpsuits, orange leotards, white kimonos. Almost all of it affixed to teens and early-20-somethings. About three-quarters of the 8,000 attendees dressed as their favorite characters, so as they milled about the lobby, it looked like Alice in Wonderland High.
Brandi Williams wore a braided mop of purple hair and a burgundy overcoat with tails as part of her persona, Chrono, from "Chrono Crusade." Her friend, Sami Butler, looked like a nurse wearing bright blue as Rosette from the same tale. They made their own costumes and were sharing two hotel rooms with eight other young women.
Williams said her dad has called all this some kind of cult. "It's just good, clean fun," counters Williams. "I'm a Christian."
Sakura-Con is the fastest-growing and most colorful local fandom convention. It is living proof that the Japanese art forms of anime (animation) and manga (comic books) are still hot. It is also a testament that fans are dedicated enough to volunteer hundreds of hours of sweat equity year-round to make sure everyone is happy for three days.
The mundane might think anime (an-nee-may) is just cartoons, an amalgam of baby voices, goo-goo eyes and tough-talking 11-year-old superheroes. But anime and manga (mon-ga) represent a medium, not a genre, and cut across a wide swath of topics and levels of sophistication. "Spirited Away" was a worldwide film classic, but others are so obscure that only an "otaku" (obsessed fan) could appreciate it.
While attendees are young, the key volunteers who plan and run it are parents. Daniel Harrison and friends were hanging out in a Tacoma comic-book store a decade ago when they hatched the plan to do their own con. He is a science-fiction fan who regularly attended Norwescon, but as time went by, he wanted to see more anime.
"There wasn't enough of it at Norwescon," he says, "and they didn't seem to be that interested in doing more. Somebody said, 'We should put on our own con.' Before I knew it, we were."
They called the first one "Baka-Con." Baka means "idiot," which they all thought best described them. Yet more than 300 people showed up, so they decided to try doing others, with the more respectable name of Sakura, which means cherry blossom. When Norwescon turns 30 next year, Sakura-Con turns 10.
While Sakura-Con attendance swells, Foolscap VIII (www.foolscapcon.org) would be happy with 225 attendees next month. The mission is retro, celebrating and discussing science fiction and fantasy writing.
"Twenty years ago, it was the few, the proud, the geeks," says Hank Graham, chair of the con set for Sept. 22-24 at the Bellevue Sheraton. "Now it's huge and runs from anime to furries to filkers. I remember when celebrities were people who wrote something."
Foolscap was named after Foolscap paper, a reference meant to evoke reading material. It was a bit esoteric, so many of the initial guests showed up in jester hats, a tradition that stuck. Not wanting to come off as fandom fuddy-duddies, the con included "flat things," like art. And being flexible, it gave sculpture a "spiritually flat" exemption.
Graham works as an electrical engineer for a company that maps the sea floor. He actually tries out all the features when he gets a new calculator, "just for fun." He grew up a reader in part because his father refused to own a television set. Perhaps as a subliminal, tardy revolt, Graham owns about 1,000 DVDs.
Science fiction and fantasy fans can be cruel to newbies, eager to point out lack of knowledge, faulty references, questionable taste, wavering commitment. Yet Graham wants to reach those people who love the books but are afraid to join discussions because they think dressing as a Klingon is required.
In fact, Foolscap is so book-loving that some say it is striving to "duplicate Norwescon 3" which was about science, science fiction and science-fiction writers.
STEPHEN BARD CHAIRED Norwescon 3 in 1980. He got introduced to hard-core Seattle science-fiction fandom well before then, in a Capitol Hill bookstore, when he met up with the "Nameless Ones." The group, which included author F.M. "Buzz" Busby and his wife, Elinor, published a Hugo-winning fanzine called "Cry" or sometimes "Cry of the Nameless." Seattle science-fiction writer Vonda McIntyre wrote a column for it in the late 1960s and early '70s.
Bard went to a local comics show in the mid-'70s and found a notice from Greg Bennett, who wanted to start a Science Fiction Club in Seattle. The underlying objective was to get a World Science Fiction Convention, the Super Bowl of fandom, in Seattle. He attended a meeting with about six others and was skeptical. Nobody, he said, would take a Seattle Worldcon bid seriously unless Seattle fen had a track record of hosting well-organized regional conventions.
From there, both the Northwest Science Fiction Society and Norwescon were born. Because they were readers, Norwescon focused on books, writers and the science that inspired them. The guest of honor would leave the first few pages of a short story in the lobby at the start of the con. Other visiting writers would sit at a typewriter and add to it. Stephen King — before he was Stephen King — did the best, Bard says.
Since those early days, Seattle has maintained a reputation as something of a mother ship for fandom, but no one can say for sure why. Some say it is because of all the engineers and computer geeks. Some blame the weather, of course. McIntyre says it has become a very good place for sci-fi and fantasy writers partly because of the many cons, but also because of the Clarion West Writers Workshop for those interested in the genres. Bard strayed from Norwescon when the mission began to change to include subsets, other media and softer science.
Now, he escapes the mundane world through his Beacon Hill house, which feels more alive than some inert arrangement of wood and glass. There is not a bare spot on a wall or ceiling — not in his bathroom, his bedroom, his kitchen. Trinkets, busts, skulls, dolls, fantasy figurines and books are piled knee-high and so thick that you must walk one foot in front of the other on paths carved through it all. It started with his science-fiction book collection.
He doesn't have obsessive compulsive disorder, he says, adding in a murmur, "Well, maybe a little."
Rather than liquidate a few things, he plans on building two additional rooms. His science-fiction room, done in a Barbarella-meets-the-Jetsons motif, is adorned with whirling platters, chrome mobiles, egg-shaped chairs and a deprivation chamber.
His hedge-ringed yard is filled with everything from glass balls to plastic heads. Between a brick tower complete with drooping Rapunzel hair and a tree fort with spaceship windows sits a Minotaur, which used to welcome visitors to the University District's Wizards of the Coast arcade.
He is most proud of his son, Damon, who started showing his creature sculptures in the Norwescon Art Show when he was about 14 and sold his large bronze dragons and griffins for thousands of dollars when he was 17. Today, Damon is the primary sculptor at DreamWorks Studio, making the major characters for their computer-animated films and earning about four times his dad's Boeing salary.
KRISTA WOHLFEIL, WHO met Rall at an anachronism society event, started early, too. Her mother took her to see "Star Wars" about 10 times. She read "The Chronicles of Narnia" when she was 7, and became entranced with Dr. Who at 8. Her mother tried to steer her toward the mainstream in the '80s as the Dungeons and Dragons game craze began drawing ridicule and suspicion, but it was too late.
"I simply wasn't interested in clothes and boys, not unless the clothing was slightly outlandish and the boy could play a good game of D&D," she says. "I know it was an embarrassment to her, and still is to a point. Because of that I had a difficult time dealing with other kids and tended to keep to a small group of friends and keep my head down in school."
Finding a con felt like finding a home. It wasn't all about D&D and Trekkies. It was about like minds.
That's the connection that fascinates Rall. One of the traits she highlighted in her panel discussion was how fen conversation tends to be "energetic and high participation." And sure enough, a long-haired guy wearing a blood-red silk shirt and thigh-high black leather boots (think Musketeer without a sword) sat in the front row and waxed on about the "complexities" of fandom. Behind him, a regal, mature man in full-length black wool coat and derby considered the question of diversity. "You can be in the past and you can be in the future," he said, "but how comfortable are you in the present?"
It went on like this for an hour, taking on, to a mundane's ear, the tenor of a support-group meeting:
"I was a second-generation fan. My boyfriend would tease me, but if someone didn't get 'Star Trek' . . . that caused a problem."
"I grew up in the deep South where science fiction was almost in the pornographic section of the bookstore. I was one of the oddballs, distinctly separate from the norm."
"How broad can science fiction get before it loses its identity?"
"The fandom culture is so much more accepting than others that it shocks you when you step out of it."
"Fandom wouldn't be fandom if we didn't have all the mundanes out there that you have to deal with every day."
Another fannish communication trait, Rall suggests, is that no topic is taboo. So when an African-American man enters the room toward the end of the discussion, a woman in the audience says, "That's another issue in fandom, the lack of people of color." Turning to the guy, she says, "What brought you to this con?"
An awkward moment for sure, but a provocative question. The man shakes off the unease.
"Because I don't take it seriously," he tells the people who do. "I'm just here for the schwag," he says, the free stuff.
Richard Seven is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tom Reese is a Seattle Times staff photographer.
Speaking the language
Which one is the Wookie? If you can't answer that, you are hopelessly "mundane." He's the big guy on the left. In fact, this one is Chewbacca, the hairy sidekick from "Star Wars." The little critter on the right is an Ewok, a small but spunky group also of "Star Wars."
Here are some other, much more obtuse — and inexact — bits, most of which are cribbed from the Neo-fan's Guide to Science Fiction Fandom:
Mundane: "The ignorant outside world, whence you came."
SMOF: Secret Master of Fandom. This person is being self-important if he calls himself this, but if the term is used to describe someone else, that person probably is important in bringing everyone together.
Filking: Folk singing science-fiction or fantasy stories.
BNF: Big Name Fan.
BEM: Big-eyed monster.
Fanac: Fan activity.
FAFIA: Forced Away From It All, not to be confused with GAFIA, which is Getting Away From It All. You choose GAFIA. FAFIA likely happens at the insistence of your parents or spouse.
Genzine: A fanzine with widespread interest.
GoH: The Guest of Honor at a convention or "con."
Snogging: The fannish version of necking.
Furries: Fans interested in fictional animals with human traits.
Fugghead: One who speaks before thinking.
Find your fantasy fellows
For a good list of fan clubs, conventions and happenings, see the Northwest Science Fiction Society Web site at http://www.sfnorthwest.org/clubs.html.