My friend Helmi introduced me to this number more than a decade ago. 150, also known as the Dunbar number, is the maximum number of people a human can have in their social group. Of course, like any sociological or psychological science, this rule is not hard and fast, nor does anthropologist and psychologist Robin Dunbar assert it is so. More accurately, the number ranges from 100 to 200, with the more social types at the higher end. The number also refers to those we would call “casual friends”, not exclusively close friends, and not those folks whom we’ve met once or twice and know only well enough to wave and say hello.
Dunbar has more numbers, which correspond with the varying types of relationships humans typically experience, right down to 5—our best friends and family members.
My Dunbar number is high. I would guess close to 200. In part because I’m outgoing and like people, in part because my husband is a raging extrovert, in part because I have moved many times and have to make new friends in every new location. The last reason is bittersweet. I have been enriched by diverse geographical friendships but saddened every time I’ve had to say goodbye.
There is also an irony to my Dunbar number. Yes, I have many friends, for which I am grateful, but because of the off-the-beaten path places my husband and I choose to live, I am seldom able to connect in person with my “tribe”: SFF nerds. Specifically, SFF writers, editors, and artists.
Well-meaning friends go out of their way to point out the writing groups, events, and organizations that await me at my new destination but it’s not the same. Imagine telling a diehard football player not to worry because the town he’s moving to has an excellent tennis club. Both sports, sure, but worlds apart.
Which brings me to my salvation: SFF conventions.
When I attended my first SFF convention in San Antonio, Texas, in 2013, I felt like every fictional character who is transported to a secret and fantastical world. Here was my Narnia, my Hogwarts, my Oz. Here, at last, was my tribe.
Have I mentioned that I am the queen of bad timing?
No sooner had I found a means by which I could satisfy that part of my soul that yearned for connection, then I found myself in the middle of a tempest. The SFF community is going through some growing pains that threaten to divide a group of people who were once relegated to the fringe of the literary world, people who came together to celebrate and promote the often-maligned genres they loved and support one another in their struggle against the mainstream.
Until the US presidential election moved in to claim the spotlight, it felt to me as if there was a new reason for outrage within the SFF community every other week. Sometimes the outrage was justified, other times I couldn’t help thinking that folks on both sides needed to step way back and put things into perspective. There are issues in the world today that genuinely deserve our outrage; your book not winning the award you wanted to win is not among them.
One of the most recent flares of outrage concerned the programming for the World Fantasy Convention, which I attended, in Columbus, Ohio in October. Some of the planned panel titles were offensive, others just seemed out of touch and old fashioned, and there was a distinct lack of diversity and representation. When the planned programming was revealed, there was outrage, there was uproar, some guests boycotted the event, others threatened to boycott unless the panel problems were addressed. And while I recognized the problems, I had no intention of canceling my trip and I felt only a tinge of disappointment in the programming. As a female, I suppose this makes me a bit traitorous but I don’t care.
At first I didn’t understand why I did not feel as outraged as everyone else, or at least why I was not seriously annoyed. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I don’t go to these big, well-known events for the panels or the presentations, not really. If there happen to be some good ones, fantastic, if not, oh well. I go because of that tiny-yet-vital percentage of my Dunbar number that I’ll only get to see in person perhaps once a year.
You need to understand that, for me, getting to these big conventions requires serious planning (there are a small group of us spread all over the place whose schedules must align), saving (as a Canadian, everything costs me at least 25% more), and travel (more than once I have had to spend two days traveling on either side of the convention dates). For those who live in the US (excluding Alaska and Hawaii), who live in urban areas, who can easily fly or drive to the convention city, who can afford to attend multiple cons per year, and/or who live in close proximity to other members of the SFF tribe, choosing not to attend any given con is a relatively easy decision. For me, it not only means losing money (I try to use some form of air miles or rewards programs for all my flights and those flights are non-refundable), but also giving up the one opportunity I look forward to all year to be with my people.
At the World Fantasy Convention this year, I told my friends that the convention could be nothing but everyone hanging around a flaming dumpster in an alley, and they could call it Flaming Dumpster Con, and as long as my friends were there I’d go and I would have a great time. I was only half joking.
I wrote this post because I have been considering the outrage and the growing pains in the SFF community. The folks who were upset about this year’s WFC programming weren’t wrong. In fact, beyond the ill-chosen titles and glaring whiteness (male whiteness, frequently), the panels I attended were almost all disappointing. The panelists were knowledgeable and the topics were interesting but too often the discussion boiled down to, “I think this, you think that, here are the titles of some excellent books that exemplify our points…but we’re not going to go into any detail about why.” Some panelists didn’t even show up and in one case the moderator didn’t show up. There was also one memorable and painfully awkward moment when a panel of all white men tried to answer a question about Native American mythology. If I had traveled all that way to actually learn something from the panels, I would have asked for my money back.
I also wrote this post because, despite my seeming indifference, I actually do care about the SFF community. I want my community to reflect my values. Part of the reason I love SFF is because the genre is creative and forward thinking. It’s awful to see parts of the community stuck in a less enlightened past. But as a microscopic fish in a massive pond, with limited time and resources, how do I help to make that happen?
For starters, not with outrage. I find anger exhausting and I choose to save it for the biggest of big problems. Not that outrage and anger aren’t necessary at times. To those who can wield that hammer well, I say, “Good work!” But, me? I thrive on positive energy.
I will continue to attend big cons to be with my long distance friends, to meet new friends, and to make the kind of connections that aren’t possible in my far off corner of the world. If I happen to also learn something about the business or the craft while I’m at it then bonus points for me. But where I can and will make a difference is locally. I’ve volunteered at the Creative Ink Festival for two years now and will continue to help out however I can. I also hope to attend (and perhaps also participate as a panelist?) When Words Collide, in Calgary, Alberta this summer. These are two examples of genre events that are getting it right and harnessing the talents of the community in the best way possible. These are the kind of events that make me excited about learning and sharing. These are the kind of events that make me proud to say I write SFF.
And I would humbly suggest that if you are also an SFF nerd and find yourself outraged at the the status quo, then find an event that you believe in, no matter how small, and volunteer. At the very least, help spread the good word.
I am small. I am a nobody in the SFF world. But I will support the people who represent everything that is best in my tribe.
That is not a Dunbar number. That is the number of people it takes to make a positive change.