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Rant: The Dragon Awards and the Convergence of Exiles

Forty years ago exactly, Carol and I were there in the throngs of MidAmericon I. The con was a celebration of Robert A. Heinlein and (by implication) all of hard SF. It was a tremendously popular con. The newly adult Baby Boomers were pouring into SF and conventions by the thousands. Many people began to fret that these enthusiastic new fans would swamp the longstanding traditions of fandom and turn fandom into something that fandom itself wouldn’t recognize.

Never one to let a supposed crisis go to waste, con chair Ken Keller had the concom raise prices to levels never seen before, finally $50 at the door without an advance registration. (This would be $211 in 2016 dollars.) Keller did something else: He tried to pitch the con as strictly for fans of capital-S capital-F Science Fiction, and stated pretty clearly that “fringefans” (that is, Trekkies and gamers and media fans generally) would find the con boring and should stay away. I don’t know Keller and I’m not sure how serious he was; it sounded like a publicity stunt even then. Lots of people made fun of him in the runup to the convention, myself included. I wrote several filk songs mocking MidAmericon, and one specifically mocking Keller.

At the time I thought it was just some guy throwing his weight around, and I doubt anybody gave much thought to the question: What if they really do go away? Heh. Guess what? In 1987, the first DragonCon was held. During the years since then, Worldcon attendance wobbled around a few thousand truefen, while DragonCon (and other media cons like ComiCon) absolutely exploded. At this writing, media cons routinely out-pull Worldcons by a factor of ten or more. (Sometimes a lot more.) By 2015, ComiCon San Diego had 167,000 people in attendance. Sasquan, the 2015 Worldcon, had…3,418. 2% of ComiCon.

Alas, across these past forty years, Worldcon has become a rounding error.

I’ve never been to a media con and I don’t have first-hand knowledge, but seeing reports from other authors, it’s become clear that media cons are not entirely superhero cosplay anymore, if they ever were to begin with. There are programming tracks on purely textual SF and fantasy, with author guests and signings, and all the stuff we used to enjoy doing at Worldcons.

Ok. It took forty years, but media cons have now matured enough and broadened their focus enough to give birth to a new award that touches on most aspects of the creative fantastic, including textual SF and fantasy. The Dragon Awards were presented yesterday. The list of awards has been posted on the DragonCon site. The award is a popular-vote award rather than a juried award like the Nebulas. It’s a fan award, nominated by fans and voted on by fans. How many fans exactly has not yet been released, though I hope numbers will come out eventually.

What struck me as significant about the Dragon Awards is that there are seven different categories for textual novels: Best SF, Best Fantasy, Best YA, Best Military SFF, Best Alternate History, Best Apocalyptic, and Best Horror. (There are, as you might expect, Best Graphic Novel and Best Comic Book categories as well.) There are no awards for short fiction, no art awards, and no fan awards. I think one or two art awards would make sense, and with some luck we’ll have those someday. I’ll give them some time to get it right. This was the award’s first year, after all.

Even though I’m way behind in my reading because of the Big Move, several authors on the winners list are people I have read in the past and much like, including the late, great Terry Pratchett, Larry Correia, John C. Wright, and my friend Brian Niemeier. What these four authors have in common (perhaps with others like Nick Cole whom I’ve not yet read) is a knack for telling a damned fine yarn without getting mired in identity politics or self-conscious message pie. Furthermore, Brian Niemeier won the award as an indie, with his self-published second novel, Souldancer.

If the Dragons are any reflection of the shape of media fandom, one of my longstanding suspicions has been confirmed: Media fandom is absorbing traditional SFF fandom. Traditional fandom has become fussy, elitist, and ideologically uniform to the extent that there is active hostility toward anyone who doesn’t either salute the progressive left or stay fastidiously quiet. This was not always the case, and I used to count among my friends many on the left, some of them very frank Marxists. (Some are still my friends. Others have called me a fascist or some other damfool thing for my Puppy sympathies and are long off my roster.) We used to have lively discussions of various political issues at cons, and nobody went home mad. But that was the 70s. I had hair, and fandom was young, tolerant and diverse. It was a short time comin’, and it’s been a long time gone.

At MidAmericon II last week, the concom ejected Dave Truesdale of Tangent Online for making several panelists…uncomfortable. (Really. I am not making this up. It’s in the Code of Conduct.) I heard the audio of his schtick and read many descriptions of the panel itself. The schtick was funny. Yes, Dave was mocking political correctness, just as I was mocking Ken Keller back in 1976. Keller didn’t throw me out of the con; I’m pretty sure he was too mature for that sort of nonsense. MidAmericon II has a code of conduct so broad that it basically allowed the concom to throw out anybody they didn’t like. Suppose I had gone to a panel moderated by John Scalzi and he made me uncomfortable. Would they throw him out on my complaint?

Hang on. I’ll stop giggling in a minute or two…

Ok. There. Whew. [Blows nose. Is glad he wasn’t drinking Diet Mountain Dew.] The point I’ll close with is something we should have learned forty years ago: If you abuse and insult people, they will leave, and avoid you from then on. Back in 1976, MidAmericon I insulted media fans, and little by little, they left. More recently, SF’s Insider Alphas have been insulting people who dare question progressive orthodoxy in fantastic literature, and those people are leaving. I didn’t expect that the two groups of exiles would converge, but that’s what appears to be happening. A young, diverse (see Sarah Hoyt’s description linked to above) and ginormous fandom is coalescing outside the fandom I grew up with. It isn’t conservative in any identifiable way. People aren’t leaving fandom because it’s almost exclusively left-leaning. (I recall it leaning strongly left forty years ago.) They’re leaving because fandom is now intolerant of dissent, and because far too many in fandom demonize all opposition. That’s not the left wing I encountered during the Vietnam era in the ’70s and once identified with. That’s just tribalism in a fandom costume.

If media cons remain at 100,000 plus attendance levels, I’ll have some issues, because crowds that big make me twitchy. However, some interesting things are happening. The people who created Phoenix ComiCon have created a new, smaller, and more focused event called Phoenix Fan Fest. Its emphasis is on comic books, and on interaction between comics creators and their fans, with a mere 15,000 or so attendees. If the ComiCon creators can break out comic books into their own event, why not textual SFF? They could do it if they wanted to. Given the emergence of the Dragon Awards, my guess is that sooner or later, they will.

At that point, the schism becomes complete: 5% of fandom will remain grumpy and exclusionary. The other 95% will just get together–in events both large and, well, less large–and have fun in one another’s company.

That’s not a wish. That’s a prophecy.


  1. Well said, Jeff!

    It’s fitting that media cons are taking in the disaffected Fandom con refugees. The schism you so accurately described and predicted has occurred in large part because most SFF fans get their fix from Movies, TV, and games.

    I may be something of a poster child for that demographic since, even though I’m an author, most of my influences come from those three sources. These days, I’m hardly alone.

    1. I forget who said it originally, but it’s true: Fiction genres were created as a sort of shorthand to make shelving books easier for bookstores. Quite apart from having roots in media and gaming, you’re among the first generation of SFF writers who didn’t have to cater to the whims of meatspace bookselling. Yes, I miss ’em too (the monster B&N near my new home in Phoenix closed several years ago, and is now a furniture store) but I don’t miss the limitations that the retail channel imposed on writers. Your power to refactor genre conventions is one of the things that make you stand out among the new generation of authors who came of age waving bye-bye at SFF’s gatekeepers.

      Media is damned important. I take a great deal of my inspiration from action films, whether they’re SFF or not. There’s a reason for this: My deeper mind (whateverthehell you choose to call it) hands me images and scenes, and the process of writing is largely watching those scenes play like film in my head, and then describing them. I do most of my worldbuilding in note form apart from writing the associated stories. I invent gadgets, in fact, before I have stories to put them in. My stories move well because I receive them in motion. This isn’t exactly being a pantser, though I am a pantser. It’s about being able to see wonderful things as soon as my muse drop-kicks them across my corpus callosum.

      I still think in genres because I’m old. I did do some genre-bending with TGO, and it’ll be interesting to see how my writing evolves now that I’m the master of the whole process, from inspiration to publication.

  2. jimf says:

    I agree…well said. Actually, I thought Ken Keller really did mean it back then… The old guard was afraid of being subsumed by media fans.

    The current old guard is afraid of everything which does not fit their worldview.

  3. Will says:

    Also forty years ago, a well-known pro saw these efforts to get rid of those awful fringe ransoms, and he wasn’t having it. “Stomp the shadowman!” He cried. “They are Us””
    His name? David Gerrold.

  4. Matthew Asnip says:

    There’s a place for mega cons and micro cons. This year we went to LibertyCon (size restricted to no more than 750) and DragonCon (stated size restricted to whatever the fire marshal allows). They are quite different, but both were fun. It’s a shame that the SMoF’s (or CHORFs) in charge of Worldcon feel the need to dictate what works are worth reading instead of going with the flow.

    Back in the day (70’s and 80’s) my perception of sf awards was that the Hugos represented the will of the people and the Nebulas were more literary. Now neither comes across as anything but pretentious.

    That’s sad. I’m hoping the Dragon awards will develop into what I used to think the Hugos were and that some other award will grow to be the literary counterpart.

    1. Your day was my day too (my first con, in fact, was Discon in 1974) and I agree: back then, buying the Hugo-winning novel was a good bet. Today, not so much. I like Scalzi’s Old Man’s War and when Redshirts won the Hugo a few years ago, I bought it. I pushed my way through it and then gave it away. It was derivative, not especially clever, and not the least bit funny. I got my nose rubbed in it that year, but in truth the scam had been going on for a long, long time.

      I stopped paying attention to the Nebulas when SFWA became obsessed with how often writers were selling stories, and wanted to toss out those of us who didn’t sell often enough to suit them.

      The Dragon Awards are still young. I think it was a very good start, and I expect they’ll remain true to the tastes of the general public rather than well-placed insiders. The more interesting question is in fact one you bring up: smaller events catering to a broader audience that isn’t hemmed in by identity politics. I think they can work. I bought a membership in Libertycon for next year (I’ve not been there before) and have high hopes for it. I just wish something like that were happening a little closer to Phoenix and a little easier to reach than Tennessee.

  5. Old NFO says:

    Well said, and agree with Matthew’s comment and your response above. I’m in my 60s and can’t stand any of the last couple of years of ‘Hugo’ winners…

  6. TRX says:

    For some reason, most of the people who talk about LibertyCon live way closer to you than to Tennessee…

    1. Yup. I lived five miles south of Sarah Hoyt for 12 years before I knew it–and learned it less than a year before we moved away.

  7. Christopher L Smith says:

    I was happy to see that the Alamo City Comic Con added a Young Adventurers Writers Workshop, as well as (mentioned, but not yet scheduled) several panels for writers.

    It’s a little closer to Pheonix, and SWairlines flies direct 🙂

    See you at Libertycon

  8. Cue sleep inducing violin music.
    Volume up on Zukowski, announcing softly.
    Come to LibertyCon, we’ll have radio drama and Brisket.

    1. Already paid for. Gonna be a busy summer next year, what with the eclipse, but we’ll be moved by then and I’m going to get it all in.

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