There has recently been a huge kerfuffle in the science fiction community regarding the Hugo Awards. You don’t really need to know much about it and probably don’t want to. Suffice it to say that two groups had it out over the past and future direction of science fiction and fantasy, and the meaning of the asterisk.
The awards have now been given, but still the blogosphere is full of recriminations, sour grapes, and schadenfreude.
What does this have to do with mental health? Aside from the fact that very smart people can behave like vicious toddlers, it’s interesting to note that the various sides in this dispute did not always, shall we say, acted rationally. You probably guessed that from the asterisks.
This phenomenon is not unique to the Hugo Awards. If you have never been to a science fiction convention, let me tell you about it.
Most of the people there will be very intelligent, obsessive about their particular fields of interest, lacking in social skills to various degrees, and will have a history of being outcast or bullied in their youth.
Does any of that sound familiar?
I’m not a psychologist (nor do I play one on TV), but I can’t help thinking that if you tested everyone at one of these events they would score higher than a random group of people on the autism spectrum. Simply put, the SF community appears to have more than its share of Aspies – and a fair sprinkling of bipolar, depressive, and OCD people.
When their oddities are carried to the extreme – and they often are – SF fandom can devolve into incivility that results in unconscionable threats and exceedingly ugly online behavior.
When you see these kinds of behavior, it is tempting to dismiss science fiction fans as being the caricatures that the media have instilled in us – clueless losers who live in their parents’ basements, show up at jury duty dressed in Star Trek uniforms, and insist that Harry should have ended up with Hermione.
Admittedly, to a certain extent that is true. If you look around at a convention you will almost certainly see a number of people who conform to that stereotype. I myself have a relative who could be Queen of the Get-a-Lifes.
What you may not see is that, despite the cluelessness, rudeness, sometimes elitist or misogynistic behavior, obsessiveness, and disregard for the feelings of others, the science fiction community is actually, at heart, a place where the non-typical person can find a group of like-minded individuals to talk with, obsess with, bond with, and occasionally practice social skills with. It fullfills a very real social and psychological need. Without the science fiction community, whether online or in “meatspace,” many of these people would have little or even no place to have much of a social life at all.
Certainly the stereotype is not true of all members of fandom. Most hold regular jobs in technical, creative, or other fields, have families and close relationships, and negotiate their way through modern society as well or poorly as anyone else. But there are consistencies in their background. Most are incessant readers and have been since childhood. Many have been the targets of cliques in school and the workplace. A number would be described by their neighbors as quiet loners (though this is not to imply that SF fandom harbors more spree killers than any other group). They have odd senses of humor or in some cases none at all. In a very real sense, sf fandom is for them, as one song would have it, made up of “My Thousand Closest Friends.”
So if you happen to be in a hotel and find the meeting space is overflowing with people dressed as Klingons, robots, and giant furry animals, remember that they are mostly harmless and enjoying a moment of fitting in to a part of society that celebrates and honors their differences and shares their pride in their oddness. Where they can relax and be themselves, without worrying about seeming weird or threatening or being put down, avoided, or scorned. Think of it as a support group with parties, art shows, panel discussions, music, costumes, movies, and chocolate.
A lot of us with mental disorders are glad to know that such places exist. A lot of us wish we could find or make such places, too.