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Weirdos and Misfits

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“Weirdos and Misfits.” These are the people who, it is said, prime ministerial advisor Dominic Cummings is looking for to reinvigorate the upper echelons of the Civil Service and shake them out of their complacent, traditionalist ways.

I’ve got some news for him. The weirdos and misfits are right there under his nose. And have been since before he was born. They are in the lower strata of the civil service, for the most part ignored because they hide their lights under bushels, either from choice or because they just assume that no-one would be interested in their outlandish ideas or the odd stuff they get up to in their free time. I refer, of course, to science fiction fans.

Let me give you an example.

For the past couple of months, I’ve been wading through Warhoon 28, a fanzine published by a New Yorker, Richard Bergeron, in 1978. It’s taken that long because Warhoon 28 was rather special. It was a 650-page hardback book, showcasing the writing of Belfast fan Walt Willis. Willis, together with James White and Bob Shaw (both later to become respected authors in their own right) formed the nucleus of what was called ‘Irish Fandom’ in the 1950s and early 1960s.

I’ve written in other blog posts about science fiction fans and their conventions; I’ve mentioned fanzines from time to time, and how science fiction is a genre whose fans can turn into influential writers. But what I may not have made clear is just who these fans are “in real life” (a term more familiar now in the wired world but that started out in fandom). Walt Willis’ day job was as a civil servant within the Northern Ireland Parliament at Stormont. He never wrote much about his everyday work, but in a fanzine article in 1975 he alluded to his position, working directly to a Minister. Whilst that made him pretty senior, he certainly didn’t start out that way; in those days, you could start as a Messenger and end up a Permanent Secretary. (The last person to do that was Sir Terry Heiser, Permanent Secretary at the Department of the Environment, and he retired in 1992.)

Through his fanzines, Slant and later Hyphen, Willis changed the nature of fan writing, putting the emphasis not so much on the “serious and constructive” discussion of science fiction, but more on what fans did, both in pursuit of their interest and in their everyday lives. Being located in Belfast, Willis was in a way as distant from other fans in England as from the far greater number of fans in North America, and this led to his becoming well-known on both sides of the Atlantic. His column, The harp that once or twice (named for a quotation from James Joyce’s Ulysses), ran in a number of fanzines, starting with Lee Hoffman’s Quandry in 1951. His reputation grew to the extent that he became the first recipient of funds raised by North American fans to bring him to the 1952 World Convention, held that year in Chicago. This started a series of fund-raising campaigns to encourage international interchange of fans that has run ever since and expanded to embrace Australia and New Zealand.

In 1969, Willis described an idea he’d had:

“...the principle is one I follow in my day-to-day work as a senior civil servant concerned with the problem of making people behave better. Privately I think of it as Nudgism, the theory that people can be induced voluntarily to do things you couldn’t force them to do.

Now, if you Google “nudge theory”, you’ll be pointed to a lot of references to the 2008 book by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, “Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness“.

Walt Willis only ever described his idea once in print, in an earlier edition of Warhoon  (Warhoon 26, February 1969). I’ve seen no evidence that either Thaler or Sunstein ever saw that, and at this stage it would probably be impossible to access what circulation records there might be (if, indeed, any ever existed) to see how the idea got passed on. I suspect it submerged into the collective unconscious and only surfaced some 35-40 years later in a conversation with one of the authors that went “I read somewhere about an idea…”

I can think of two science fiction fans personally known to me who occupied senior roles in the civil service; neither of them were parachuted in but worked their ways up from fairly humble beginnings. And I know of plenty more who never progressed to rarefied heights but did solid, sterling work, all the while having a range of knowledge and ideas that generally never got used in their day jobs.

It’s widely recognised that the Internet is the way it is because so many of the people who helped develop it were science fiction fans, familiar with a world-spanning network of people openly sharing their thoughts, aspirations and ideas on a wide range of subjects with ink and paper through the postal system, with paper fanzines standing in for websites and letters flying across oceans and continents binding the whole together. People became lifelong friends without ever seeing each other, just the way they do now through the medium of e-mail and social media. If fans could invent something that complex without even trying, then someone who took the trouble to identify that talent in a wider population – such as the Civil Service – could harness that ingenuity to bring about powerful and lasting change.

How about it, Mr. Cummings?

Update: In a Radio 4 programme by Professor Sir David Cannadine, Cass Sunstein is heard saying that the term “Nudge” came from a publisher who suggested it as a more catchy title when he and Richard Thaler were doing the rounds trying to sell their book. This suggests that the mystery interlocutor I speculated on might well be that publisher. Warhoon 28 would have been seen by people either in publishing, or who would have been very likely to gravitate towards a career in publishing. It would be interesting to know just who that was! (October 2020)

Written by robertday154

January 18, 2020 at 11:06 pm

5 Responses

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  1. Nerds inhabit every social sphere and some of the highest offices of the land. I’m willing to bet that when France’s Emmanuel Macron isn’t hosting a summit or cracking open a policy paper, he’s binge-watching “Battlestar Galactica”. Angela Merkel? Are you kidding, she chills out by breezing through German translations of Le Guin. Boris is the exception: he’s a fan only of himself, which is his biggest problem. Enjoyed the post, as usual, Robert.

    Cliff Burns

    January 19, 2020 at 9:26 pm

    • Merkel is completely ignorant of German culture (including literature), or of any culture in any language, for that matter. She has NEVER quoted a line from a poem, a standard saying, dropped the name of a composer… (The same goes for Macron, which runs counter to the long-standing French tradition of alluding to the classics, from Montaigne to Sartre [let’s consider him ‘a classic’ for once]). That said, Le Guin is a good case, if for other reasons. The genre has seen numerous literary classics recast in SFnal terms, “Robinson Crusoe on Mars”, Jack Williamson borrowing the three musketeers, Heinlein rehashing the Prisoner of Zenda in Double Star… One of the few “classics” of Eastern German lit. was Christa Wolf’s novel “Der geteilte Himmel” (A Sky Divided), read in the West because it was basically the only novel that took as its theme the division of the country between the socialist East and the capitalist West, and the Wall (though from an Eastern perspective). Please read up on the plot and how how its physicist protagonist flees to the West, is appalled by its shallowness and finally, after his hopes have been dashed, returns to the poor, humble East “because people there are honest and humane”. And then look at “The Dispossessed” again, and you will get something of a déjà vu.

      Ulrich Elkmann

      January 27, 2020 at 12:11 pm

    • Those people aren’t Walt Willis. Those people are neoliberals. They’re soulless.


      January 31, 2020 at 12:22 am

      • It would be useful if someone put up Willis discussion of the subject and someone told WikiPedia.


        January 31, 2020 at 12:24 am

      • What I quoted in the blog post is the sum total of what WW said about nudging. And those who know more about the subject than I do can point to a history of nudge theory going back nearly a hundred years.


        July 14, 2020 at 11:34 pm

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