I spent most of my childhood and adolescence in a pre-Internet, pre-digital culture, where it was fairly difficult to be a fan of anything. If you didn’t have money, you had to make friends with the one kid in class who had a subscription to Starlog (or, god forbid, Fangoria) and whose older brother collected Heavy Metal. If you had money, you went and got those mags yourself, and mined them for nuggets of information to lord over your slack-jawed buddies. Just knowing that Return of the Jedi had originally been titled Revenge of the Jedi was enough to get you prime seating in the lunchroom and a piece of someone else’s Hubba-Bubba.
Even at that age, and with that little access to information, I saw roughly three different camps of fandom in play. The first I called the Escapists: they were the folks who wanted to actually go to Starbase 12, LV-426, Narnia or Ringworld. The real world was Alcatraz and fandom of one kind or another was their secret tunnel out of it. An even mix of SF and fantasy fans could be found here.
The second group I called the Implementers. They didn’t want to run away; they wanted to survive to see a future where there really would be a Starship Enterprise or where they really could swing a lightsaber. Most of this crowd, as you can guess, were SF fans.
The third group was everyone else—the folks who either a) couldn’t make up their minds which group they were in, or b) knew such fervor was simply not their box of Cracker Jacks. I was a 3A, and painfully conscious of it. I couldn’t decide if it was better to want to run away, or better to try and see how much of what we imagined could be made real in the world around us right now.
At first I leaned towards escapism, which wasn’t difficult when the only toolset for “escape” was a TV (no VCR and no cable), a hand-me-down typewriter, and whatever you could scare up from the library. Escaping from all that implied you’d have better tools for the escape. Then as I grew up and swapped the typewriter for a computer—one with, gasp, a hard drive—I drifted more towards the second position. But the emotional intensity of the first never completely left me; it just moved into a back room in my mind and set up shop.
When people set about building a world for their work, they often carry one of these two attitudes with them, whether or not it’s consciously acted on. They either want people to sink into the world as it is—to lie down in it, as it were—or to have some aspect of it brought to life in the real world. (Or they might want both of those things in different measures; who’s to say they’re mutually exclusive?)
Either way, they want audiences to be engaged, a term made no less crucial through its ghastly appropriation by marketing people. Creators are happiest not when people simply read (or watch), nod, then toss the work over a shoulder and reach for the next thing on the pile. They want their world to matter in some way. Steve calls this the “water-cooler factor”, whatever it is about something that makes you want to share it with other people.
The question is how they share it. Do you want them to make it into something that they want to make part of their imagination? Or do you want something people are going to use to fuel their real-world aspirations? Both, if possible? I suspect now the only reason these two polarizations exist, Escapists and Implementers, is because on first glance the two approaches do seem mutually contradictory.
But the two aren’t really a polarization. They’re part of a circle, the beginning and the end of a process. People dive into your work so they can get stuck there for a little while, swim around in the ocean you’ve made—and then, depending on what you’ve given them to take back home with them, surface and return to shore with new treasures. How you can get them to do this will be the subject of my next installment.