Canadian Speculative Fiction


A Case Study of Activity Patterns
in Avocational Subcultures
by Robert Runté

Opuntia Cover



  • Introduction
  • The Club Founding
  • Sustainable Activity Through Member Involvement
  • Sustainable Growth Through Recruitment
  • The Reaction Against Continued Recruitment
  • The Emergence of Competing Factions
  • The Numbers Game
  • The Synergism of Mutual Personal Growth
  • The Life Cycle of the Subculture
  • The Final Phase: The Return of the Son of Fandom


Garth Spencer’s overview of Canadian fan history in Opuntia#20 describes the rise and fall of a number of Canadian SF clubs and conventions. He observes, for example, that Edmonton "was for a time the largest and most active Canadian fan group" but is now "in limbo". Similarly, V-Con was Canada’s oldest and most successful convention, but it has recently faltered and may well be gone forever. Similar phenomenon can also be observed in the United States. In the 1970s, Minneapolis was the undisputed centre of fannish activity on the continent, but subsequently went into decline and was replaced by Seattle as the "fannish Mecca of the ‘80s". This raises the interesting question of why clubs rise and fall.

I have long argued that such changes represented the inevitable life cycle of any club. It seemed obvious to me that the synergism required for noteworthy output cannot be sustained indefinitely. Even if the legal identity of a club or convention remains unchanged for years, the actual level of activity within that structure will vary immensely from one fannish generation to the next. In this article then, I would like to outline the typical life cycle of an SF club, highlighting some of the key decision points.

The Club Founding

An SF club or convention is typically formed when a handful of proto-fans meet, rejoice in their discovery of like-minded individuals, and -- assuming the necessary numbers to achieve critical mass -- begin a flurry of fannish activity. Most of these groups will fail within 18 months because they are dependent on two or three founding members and cannot sustain themselves when these key players either burn out or leave. The Speculative Fiction Society of Regina, for example, appeared out of nowhere, put out 3 issues of its excellent clubzine, Spintrian ; mounted ConBine 0 in cooperation with the Saskatchewan Writers Guild; and then as abruptly collapsed following the departure of its chief instigator, Dave Panchyk.

Since SF fandom has traditionally appealed to a college-aged population, fans tend to be highly mobile. Given the constant departure of graduates, university-based clubs like the SFSR have the greatest difficulty sustaining a consistent level of activity; but all fan groups have to contend with rapid turnover as college-aged members move to other centres, become enmeshed in career or family obligations, or simply lose interest as they mature. Consequently, a fannish generation — defined as the period for which a membership list remains recognizable — is usually considered to be about two years.

There is some evidence that this rapid turnover has slowed somewhat in recent years as traditional fannish demographics have been disrupted by the baby boom population. Just as the general population now includes a higher than usual proportion of individuals in their forties, fandom has aged significantly in the 1980s. Older fans tend to be settled in their careers and homes, and so less mobile. This has not always translated into greater club longevity, however, since older fans are also more subject to burnout or competing priorities. The demands of family, career, and mortgage often leave older fans with less free time and disposable income than their college-aged colleagues, so it is rare for someone in this bracket to sustain their leading role for more than a couple of years. Even though these members may remain nominally involved for some years after, their reduced role will still create a leadership crisis, or at least a corresponding reduction in the group’s national profile. Consequently, the problem of clubs failing with the departure of key players remains essentially the same.

Most fan groups, then, enjoy only a very brief burst of activity before dissipating. Occasionally a local club will give the appearance of greater longevity if new groups arise quickly enough to assume the vestiges of the previous cycle’s formal organization. For example, the Edmonton Science Fiction and Comic Arts Society was founded by five individuals interested in trading comics and running a 16mm SF film series through the local art gallery. This group failed within 18 months as the President moved to Calgary, the VP turned his attention to his new comic store, and the Treasurer gafiated. As this film and comic book club collapsed, however, an essentially unrelated group of fanzine fans entered the scene and — not to put too fine a point on it stole what was left of the club. Having transferred the ESFCAS treasury and legal status as a nonprofit society to themselves (without bothering with such bureaucratic niceties as elections), they put out three issues of their fanzine before experiencing their own falling out, and subsequently announced that they were folding the club. At this point the legendary John McBain arrived and essentially started the club over from scratch, and it is this version of ESFCAS which grew to dominate Canadian fandom for the next decade.

Sustainable Activity Through Member Involvement

The obvious question, then, is why did John McBain’s version of the club succeeded where the two previous versions had ultimately failed?

The answer, I think, lies in leadership styles. Most clubs fail because the personality type and leadership style necessary to launch a club are often antithetical to those necessary for sustained growth. In both of the first two versions of ESFCAS the key players undertook to direct all the club’s projects themselves, while the rest of the membership remained passive consumers of whatever the executive provided. Under such an arrangement a club remains viable only so long as these key individuals remained active.

McBain, however, insisted that everyone become actively involved, and placed great emphasis on the recruitment and training of new members. As McBain’s chief lieutenant, I was all for recruiting admiring consumers of our various fannish projects, but McBain’s delegation of minor tasks often struck me as more trouble than it was worth. I would often complain I would rather take care of the details myself, and it took some time for McBain to convince me that if I hogged all the responsibility, we risked making the membership both overly dependent and increasingly apathetic. By asking each member to assume some minor responsibility, McBain provided each member with a sense of ownership. Instead of two or three key players, ESFCAS quickly developed a reservoir of dozens of involved, reliable, and committed members.

McBain’s policy of member involvement not only ensured a supply of qualified replacements as various members left or burned out, but changed the entire dynamics of the club. Instead of waiting for the leadership to announce projects, individuals and groups within the club initiated their own, and it was these broadly based activities that put ESFCAS on the map.

Sustainable Growth Through Recruitment

The high level of individual commitment and initiative in ESFCAS not only meant more and better projects, but also more successful recruitment. The larger number and variety of projects attracted more recruits than would have a similarly sized club which limited itself to a few Executive-sanctioned projects. More member-initiated activities not only implied a larger net with which to ensnare the interests of potential recruits, but also held out the prospect of starting their own project if newcomers could find nothing of interest among the current offerings.

Furthermore, recruitment was greatly enhanced as the sense of ownership felt by the members translated into more enthusiastic — and therefore more effective — word of mouth. It was not uncommon for ESFCAS members to accost complete strangers with testimonials about the club whenever they spotted likely recruits standing in the SF section of bookstores or libraries, or just reading an SF book on the bus. (Nor did it hurt that a third of the city’s used bookstores were staffed by ESFCAS members.) There is also a subtle but significant difference between someone telling a potential recruit, "They do this" or "The Club does that", and a member who feels a sense of ownership saying, "We are doing . . ." or "we are involved in . . . ". In the first case the individual is merely informed of the existence of what is to them a disembodied, abstract organization; whereas in the second example, recruits feel they have received a personal invitation from one of the key organizers. Which, thanks to McBain’s delegation of authority, was indeed the case.

The continual influx of new blood during the McBain era (which includes the years during which the club was run by the successors he helped to train and for which he then stepped aside) was the foundation of the ESFCAS’s success and longevity. As new members contributed their labour, their dues, and their ideas to the club, its rapidly expanding reputation made it even more attractive. The more people recruited to the club, the more there were to contribute to further expansion and to recruit yet others in their turn. ESFCAS peaked at about 300, at a time when most local clubs would have considered one tenth of that an unusually heavy turnout.

The Reaction Against Continued Recruitment

A fan group, then, can survive beyond the normal two year life cycle only if it manages to recruit and actively involve new members faster than it loses old ones. While this may appear self-evident, it is often difficult to convince members of a currently successful club of the importance of continued recruitment.

In the beginning, of course, the club will have actively promoted recruitment to achieve the critical mass required to mount whatever projects initially motivated the club's founding. Once these projects are up and running, however, further recruitment begins to be seen as redundant -- or even threatening.

First, enthused by current triumphs, most fans have difficulty imagining that they could ever lose interest and drift away, so the need to recruit and train successors is seldom recognized. Once gafiation begins, most fans either do not care what happens after they depart, or else deliberately disband their group so that the name is retired with them. Given that experienced fans are often reluctant to turn the operation of their beloved club or convention over to impetuous and untested youngsters (even when these are the only members left with the energy to actually do the work), the active recruitment and integration of the next generation into current operations is often resisted.

Second, in clubs where the executive attempts to direct the group’s activities, and where the membership remains a passive audience for whatever the executive provides, newcomers with leadership potential are more likely to be viewed as competitors than as a useful resource. Thus, once minimum critical mass is achieved, or the labour and financial needs of the organizers satisfied, recruitment is replaced with screening. The inevitable result is the emergence of rival groups founded by rejected newcomers, often followed by a pattern of competitive recruitment in which the denigration of the original group is offered as the chief inducement to join newer ones.

Third, even with the most broadly based club leadership, members who joined earlier may resent the inevitable changes in the status quo as more recent recruits start making demands on the organization and attempt to take it in new directions. Friction between founders and successors over the nature of the club’s mandate often discourages further recruitment.

Fourth, even if the recruit’s interests match those of the founders, each new member changes the social interactions within the club. At first, new recruits are welcome because their presence can revitalize conversations that might otherwise have become repetitive. Not only do new members introduce novel topics, ideas, and approaches, but these new stimuli can often call forth unexpected responses from those one has known for years, thus completely changing the group dynamic. Eventually, however, the need to constantly re-establish the group’s equilibrium becomes onerous. Comfortable routines, taken-for-granted friendships and the exchange of confidences are disrupted by the presence of outsiders trying to elbow their way into established conversations and cliques. Fans who remain unattached, for example, are more likely to favour active recruitment in the hopes of bringing in a satisfactory mate; but as the majority of members pair off, the interest in recruitment correspondingly declines. Indeed, further recruitment at this point threatens to disrupt established relations, and there may therefore be active sentiment against it.

Fifth, however effectively new recruits are integrated into the existing dynamic, there comes a point where the increased quantity of interactions necessarily implies a reduction in quality. As successful recruitment expands the possible permutations exponentially, members begin to leave the club meeting or convention disappointed that they missed the chance to speak with this person or that, even though the conversations they did have were perfectly satisfactory. As members are forced to priorize their encounters, identifiable cliques develop, and the club begins to break into competing factions. This phenomenon is most commonly articulated as a loss of "family feeling", and often leads to a resentment of, and resistance to, continued recruitment. Indeed, since their arrival will have indirectly triggered the emergence of splinter groups, the most recent recruits are often vilified as a destructive element, though the process really has little to do with them as individuals.

The Emergence of Competing Factions

The next crisis point, then, is when the club’s successful negotiation of the problems of member involvement and recruitment allows membership to approach the 200 person limit. Experience tells us that no avocational group can sustain the close-knit family feeling that marks a club’s Golden Age beyond this limit. ESFCAS membership was hovering at 180 when a visiting fan from Minneapolis explained the 200 rule to me. I confess that I scoffed at the suggestion that it could happen here. ESFCAS was one big happy family and it was completely inconceivable that I could become alienated from any of my fellow members, all of whom I considered close friends. Two months and 20 new members later, the club had split into the Gang of Four, the Old Guard and the Third World. The specific incidents or issues that split the club are immaterial; the fact is simply that certain people began to cluster around particular projects or personalities, which inevitably implied that others would feel excluded.

In some cases this fission is sufficiently acrimonious that the original organization dies and is replaced by two or more successor groups that then begin to repeat the entire cycle. In other cases the original club continues to operate as an umbrella organization for a number of informal factions, as happened with ESFCAS. Leadership of the umbrella organization can either be left to one of the factions whose sole purpose is to maintain this shell and mediate the interactions between factions (Steve Forty of the BCSFA comes to mind), or can be shared on a rotating basis among the member cliques. ESFCAS and NonCon eventually settled into a pattern where instead of fighting over control, each group willingly surrendered the executive to any faction that could mount a fresh slate to relieve them, relay style.

A club that acts as an umbrella group can survive for many years as new recruits are directed to whichever faction seems most appropriate and as new factions form to replace those that gafiate enmass. Activity within the club will then depend upon the rise and fall of particular groups, the dynamics of which obey the same general principles outlined above.

The Numbers Game

Recruitment, then, is the key to organizational success and longevity. Too rapid recruitment may overwhelm existing social relations, expanding existing factions beyond their ability to absorb the newcomers, leading to the splintering described above. Alternatively, an existing club or faction may resist recruitment and reject the inclusion of outsiders in their clique. Such cliquishness is always fatal over the long term. Understanding these principles can help club and convention leaderships prepare for each crisis point and to take appropriate action to ensure the organization’s successful continuation.

Ultimately, however, the Brownian Motion of recruitment and gafiation inevitably lead to a period when there is a net loss and the organization falls below critical mass.

The Synergism of Mutual Personal Growth

Upon further reflection, however, I now believe this traditional analysis to have been too simplistic. While there are clearly definable minimum and maximum limits on club membership — below which activity cannot be sustained and above which clubs inevitably breakdown into smaller and more functional factions — this quantitative analysis ignores an essential qualitative dimension. We can all think of examples of large clubs and conventions which nevertheless seem to lack that certain spark necessary to become memorable. However successful locally, these groups attract little outside attention.

I would therefore argue that a club’s reputation for greatness in fan publishing, convention organizing, or partying is based less on numbers than on the synergism of mutual personal growth. Fannish activities are interesting only to the extent that they provide opportunities to learn something new. An editor who constantly repeated him- or herself or a club that constantly debated the same issues would quickly gain a reputation as intolerably boring and fail. Only those clubs, conventions, and editors who consciously stretch themselves with each new venture gain the national recognition of an ESFCAS in its heyday. I am often nostalgic for the early days of ESFCAS, not just because it was the first time I really felt at ease in a social setting (that sense of "coming home" experienced by all neos), but because I was able to connect with a group of individuals whose knowledge, skills and interests complemented my own in such a way that we greatly stimulated and accelerated each other’s personal growth. This was particularly true of the six members of the Gang of Four who produced The Monthly Monthly. Even after over 20 years in academia, I have never again encountered a group that more thoroughly challenged my abilities, assumptions, and attitudes.

But just as veteran fans seldom attend convention programming on the grounds that they have seen it all before, there comes a point in every fan’s life where they have learned all there is to learn from this particular hobby. (Some fans never seem to achieve significant personal growth, but these individuals are generally not the ones who contribute positively to a club or convention’s reputation). As individuals and groups learn all they can and so "graduate" from fandom, the synergistic potential of that club or convention necessarily declines, and the remaining members are left wondering why they cannot recapture that elusive spark of the club’s Golden Age. The problem is not just to replace these departing members with an equivalent number of newcomers, but to recreate the specific combination of complementary skills, knowledge and attitudes that generated the specific synergism of that particular period, project, or group. This is, of course, so improbable that we might as well concede it as impossible. New synergistic pockets may well be generated as newcomers begin interacting with each other, or with some of the old timers who may have been only peripheral in the original grouping, but these should really be considered distinct new developments, rather than a continuation of the old magic.

As each synergistic project or grouping is essentially a unique event, it is unlikely that they will rise and fall in any kind of coordinated sequence. Instead, synergistic pockets will either develop simultaneously as overlapping factions within the same club or convention, or will rise and fall with significant gaps between. To outsider observers, the simultaneous pockets exaggerate the amplitude of the organization’s high points (and so lend greater contrast to the low points), while overlapping groups are likely to only partially obscure the essentially cyclical nature of these processes. In other words, even if membership remains relatively constant, the level of activity within a club will still vary dramatically over a period of years.

The Life Cycle of the Subculture

Indeed, the same analysis can be applied to fandom as a whole. Just as the level of activity and creativity within a particular club, convention, or publication may vary dramatically over time, there is good reason to expect that the popularity of fanzine publishing, convention-going, clubbing, etc. will also vary. Lay on top of this cyclical analysis the changing demographics of baby boom and bust -- with all that implies for the number of potential recruits in the appropriate age bracket; the economic cycles of recession and growth that allow or discourage participation in recreational hobby activities; and the technological changes, such as Internet, that create competing modalities for fannish-like activity, and it is amazing that fandom retains any semblance of continuity.

Ironically, the same pundits who today decry the sudden collapse of fannish numbers (as evidenced, for example, by a halving of WorldCon attendance in the last five years) are the very individuals who in the seventies were complaining that fandom had lost its intimacy. While it is true that we may well have to become accustomed to fewer zines, cons and clubs than a decade ago, this retrenchment may result in a reconcentration of quality. These trends are a natural consequence of changing demographics, economics, and technologies, and of the inherently cyclical nature of all such social phenomenon. The attempt to attribute these contractions to a failure in leadership, or to assign blame to specific individuals or committees, simply misses the point. Just as the specific issue that splinters a club when it hits 200 members is immaterial to the inevitability of that split, the nearly universal decline in convention and club membership cannot be attributed to particular decisions, which can only accelerate or slow these processes.

The Final Phase: The Return of the Son of Fandom

There is, however, an important postscript to these cycles of boom and bust that is generally overlooked. I do not believe that we have told the complete history of a club, convention, or zine until we examine what happened to its alumni. Edmonton fandom, for example, did not so much fade away as turn professional. Two thirds of those in the Gang of Four went on to related professional careers. David Vereschagin graduated from designing The Monthly Monthly to a career as a professional book designer; Christine Kulyk became a professional freelance editor; Mike Hall is a professional journalist, currently editing a monthly magazine supplement for the Fort McMurray daily; and I often draw on my fannish experience when editing textbooks, and I am currently teaching a graduate level course in writing. At least five other ESFCASians went on to become published writers: Catherine Girczyc, Sally McBride, Marianne Nielsen, Michael Skeet, and Diane Walton. Former ESFCASian Lorna Toolis became head librarian of the Merrill collection of Speculative Fiction and Fantasy in Toronto. And, as Garth pointed out in Opuntia #20, Edmonton has become the national headquarters of SF Canada, the national writer’s association; and of On Spec magazine, Canada’s only professional English language SF quarterly. Since Garth’s article, Tesseracts , the major SF book imprint, has also moved to Edmonton. These professional projects now absorb the energies that used to go into ESFCAS. Former president Cath Jackel now manages On Spec magazine; Lorna Toolis, Michael Skeet, and myself sit on the Advisory Board of Tesseract Books. Diane Walton is Secretary of both SF Canada and the Writers Guild of Alberta, as well as a Board Member for On Spec. And so on.

So its not so much that fandom is in decline in Canada, as it is that Canadian prodom is on the rise. As the concentration of capital in the publishing industry increasingly absorbs midlist publishers and drives out midlist authors, there are ironically increased opportunities for small specialty presses (like Tesseracts) to fill the gap. As reading takes a poor fifth place to TV, movies, video games, and the information superhighway among the general population, the remaining readers are contracting into a fannish-style community. As desktop publishing increasingly blurs the line between amateur and professional publications, we may anticipate the redefinition of fandom as those individuals providing sweat equity to the small press. While few of those involved in SF Canada, Tesseracts , or On Spec think of themselves as fans any longer, I think they would be recognizable as such to our predecessors. We, like the Futurians before us, are fans who had to create the professional markets that allowed us to graduate from fandom.