Fandom as Cargo Cult

IF WE BUILD IT, THEY will come — again.

First, you need to know what a “cargo cultis: a folk religion among some groups of Melanesian Islanders who believed that they could attract cargo-carrying airplanes by engaging in sympathetic magic. They got this idea during World War II, when real airplanes (both Allied and Japanese) visited these islands and airdropped actual cargoes — food, weapons, clothing, medicine, and the like. After the war, the planes stopped coming. But the islanders, convinced that the proper conditions would bring more goods, built airstrips (in some cases, complete with landing lights) and otherwise mimicked certain behaviors they thought would achieve their goals. It’s a powerful communal buzz, and easy to get lost in.

As a science-fiction/fantasy/whatnot fan for more than 50 years, I can tell you that temporarily inhabiting (or even creating!) fantastic worlds is also a powerful buzz. So much so that engaging in certain behaviors — wearing costumes or arcanely emblazoned clothing; learning and using created languages; building models; mapping worlds that never were; even simply greeting other fen in a ritualistic way (“Live long and prosper,” e.g.) — maintains that buzz when one is not otherwise actively consuming fannish media. Such behavior is akin to sympathetic magic in that it uses imitation and mimicry to reproduce that initial and all-consuming experience. And it’s not just SFnal fans: sports teams, political parties and personalities, writers and other media artists, and some religions inspire similar behavior.

Mind you, I am not casting aspersions on either islanders or fans. Sympathetic magic is not for the timid, to be sure. And I am certain that the cargo-cultists were (are?) as sincere in their mutual creativity as we fans are in ours. (Also, fans have enough problems without fending off accusations of cultism.) But these two phenomena do share a tangent. And as fans tend to be hypercritical about their passions, fandom itself is somewhat more self-aware — though just as meaningful.

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