Fannish Memory Syndrome
by Steve Green
To Birmingham, for the October gathering of the city's long-established science fiction group, this month playing host to Ken MacLeod, whose novel The Star Fraction has proven one of the hottest genre debuts this decade (and would have, even without the boost given by his Edinburgh drinking buddy, Iain Banks).
I first crossed paths with the Brum Group back in February 1977, when it was just six years old and arguably at the height of its powers; the guest that month was Brian Aldiss, with Chris Priest and Bob Shaw scheduled for March and April, and the group was about to run its sixth Novacon. Although we kind of drifted apart after I chaired Novacon 14 in 1984, memories of those heady days still coloured my expectations when I decided earlier this autumn to show some more support for my Critical Wave partner Martin Tudor (this year's chair) and rejoin Britain's longest-running regional club.
Which made my disappointment all the more palpable. Granted, MacLeod may not be as surefire a draw as, say, Isaac Asimov (who once interrupted a 1970s ocean cruise to assure the BSFG of his only UK gig) or Terry Pratchett, but to see a mere sixteen sf fans turn out for his first public speech was pretty disheartening, especially as I could so easily flashback to a time when membership was into three figures and at least half of those would monthly cram into a city centre hotel suite. To place matters in an even darker context, turnout at the Black Lodge -- the informal hangout for local horror fans, held at an arts centre bar a couple of miles away -- is regularly at least half that number, and doesn't even have a guest speaker up its sleeve.
Later, I ponder the group's slide from prominence in the company of Peter Weston, acclaimed anthologist and alleged millionaire (he denies the latter appellation), who co-founded the current BSFG in 1971, hammering it together from memories of the short-lived 1960s incarnation and a written constitution stolen from a local branch of the Conservative Party. More than any other member present, Peter recognizes the dark abyss the Brum Group now faces -- and realizes the evangelical drive he launched as 1983 chair to create greater links with general fandom (setting up an internal apa, hosting parties at other cons) can't save the day this time. Looking around the room as the meeting closes, I spot only two other fans with regular links to organized fandom, one a gamer, and neither actively publishing (although one is about to join the new horror apa, Halloween); if you're going to build, you at least need the foundations.
Maybe the answer would be to let the Brum Group die, with Novacon freed to become a fully independent event, leaving the fannish ground to lie fallow till a true need arises again. Alternatively, the committee might consider switching its allegiances to focus upon media sf, in which case it would face the twin hurdles of targeting sufficient speakers and meanwhile persuading potential new members to leave their videos behind in order to attend. Neither appeals, and the grim truth remains that it'll be a miracle if the UK's most famous sf group survives into the next century in its present form.
No, there isn't a zippy punchline. You want humour in despair, tune into The Larry Sanders Show. This, sadly, is Real Life.
Speaking of which, those gallant few attending the MacLeod meeting also included Peter's co-founder, Roger "Rog" Peyton, whose Andromeda Bookshop was established the same year as the Brum Group. The truth is, Rog loves selling books (unlike those purveyors of musty secondhand volumes who seem to equate purchases with extracting their wisdom teeth); it's just the customers he has difficulties with. If ever a system was devised by which he could each evening leave his latest delivery of hardbacks on the doorstep, returning each morning to collect the assorted currency thrust through his letterbox, I'm certain Rog would be much happier.
But at least he supports the British sf industry, which is more than most of his contemporaries bother to pretend. Our conversation turns to Christ Priest's The Prestige, recent winner of the James Tait literary award and the only one of his books yet to grace my lounge in hardback. How many copies, he asks, do I reckon were sold by W H Smith, the vast network of UK outlets which also incorporates the once-independent Waterstones chain. (Quick mental calculation, given several hundred sites.) "Two thousand?" "Lower." "One thousand?" "Lower." "Five hundred?" (I'm getting desperate, both for myself and Chris, an author I respect to the extent I actually go out and buy his books rather than scrounge them from the publishers.) "Lower." "One hundred?" "Lower." "Fifty?" (For the love of . . . ) "Lower." "None?" A manic glint appears in Roger's eye. "Correct!" Bugger.
Straight afterwards, we replay the game, substituting Forbidden Planet, the self-promoted leading sf chain in Britain; the solution's unchanged. Even when Priest strolled off with the Tait, it was left to the independent retailers to crack the bubbly. Please excuse me if I don't feel like doing the same.
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