2020 Report: Methods, Notes, and Further Reading

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Positron purpose
I began Positron Chicago in November 2014. Its primary purpose is to act as a resource for Chicagoland SF readers, alerting them to events they might be interested in attending, and as a way for readers to find clubs or discussions to join. The “Upcoming Events” page is updated via a Google Calendar.

Calendar criteria
When finding events to add to the calendar, the following criteria are considered:
  • Event type: Book discussion groups are the main target for inclusion. Other events include author readings & talks, book launches, fan conventions, academic conferences, and more; for the purpose of this project, other events are only included insofar as they contained a traditional book club.
  • Media: Strong but not exclusive preference for written works. Comics/graphic novels routinely appear on the list, although they are not specifically sought out for inclusion.
  • Genre: “Clearly science fictional or fantastic” is the baseline criteria, but there is a large overlap with genres such as horror. Non-fiction works are sometimes included when they cover topics relevant to speculative fiction.
  • Group inclusion: Once a group is on the Positron radar as strongly SF-focused or SF-friendly, all their selections are generally included, even if some of their selections are not clearly SF.
  • Other considerations: Where age ranges for events are listed, only events that are “all ages” or “adult” are included. Preference is given to discussion groups that are free and open to the public.
Original data collection
I find events to add through a few different systems:
  • Persistent groups: groups with stable or semi-stable meeting times are placed on the calendar as recurring events, prompting checks for their selections for future months.
  • Social media: relevant groups and topics in Facebook, Meetup, and Goodreads are followed or joined; periodic searches for book clubs and other events within various social media sites are conducted.
  • Libraries & bookstores: checking the events pages for Chicago-area libraries & bookstores yields a lot of events.
  • Direct Communication: where possible, mailing lists are joined, as those communications are more consistent and consistently timely than social media updates.

Data extraction
  • Exported the entirety of the Positron calendar using Time Tackle.
  • Events were reduced to just book discussions.
  • Host group names, book titles, and author names were cleaned up and standardized.
  • Methods: Supplemental data collection
  • Obvious mistakes and gaps in records were corrected where possible, using groups’ social media and/or independent websites.
  • Additional information (such as genre, publication date, and author demographics) added by fairly light/rapid searches, using Google, Wikipedia, and publisher/author websites and social media.

  • Collated data in spreadsheets.
  • While some supplemental information and possible explanations are offered in some areas, it’s important to note that these are correlative analyses, and should not be considered to imply causation.
  • Some fancy Excel tricks gleaned from Excel Jet.
  • Charts & graphs prepared in Google Sheets.
  • Gradient Generator used for some charts.

Gaps & Caveats
  • I only included for analysis events that I could pin down to a specific traditional meeting; this excluded a few groups who have different structures, and a sizable backlog ignored from some groups who have good total records of books discussed, but not of specific meetings.
  • While I became interested in filling in Positron’s backlog some time ago, and specifically filled in gaps at the beginning of this project, I was not actively/frequently adding to the calendar until late 2014, and became more efficient at finding events over time. 
  • While I could have just looked at data for the date-range I have the most info on (2015-2019), I chose to include the full date range I had available for most analyses. Two reasons for this. Firstly, I am primarily interested in these numbers insofar as they can tell a story about groups and their reading patterns, and so didn’t want to discard data from groups with longer accessible organizational memory, or to disproportionately favor newer/shorter-lived groups. Secondly, the only real outlier here is a single group, Think Galactic, whose overall number of recorded meetings is still less than half that of the bottom 165 groups.
  • I had to do a lot of reformatting of meetings, titles, and authors to get the data in usable form. Where a meeting was listed as about a complete or ongoing series, or about multiple authors or titles, I used my best judgment from the available facts to decide whether to treat as a single discussion, to break apart into separate data points, and which volumes & publication dates to use. Regarding co-authored works, I had to do a variety of treating the co-authors as a unit, separating them into two data points, or (primarily in the case of illustrators) discarding one of them, depending on what best allowed the data to be analyzed. Multi-author anthologies were analyzed as though their editor was the author of the title.
  • Where a book had multiple titles (such as UK vs. US editions), I used whichever seemed to be most frequently used by the group listings.
  • I should note that I am not totally impartial or disconnected from the data in question. I have been involved in Chicago book clubs since 2013: a repeat participant with 7 different groups, and an occasional one at others. As such, I have had a voice in various title selection processes. As of this writing, I am an active member in Think Galactic and the Chicago Nerd Social Club.

Results: Overview
  • Original Calendar Items: 2,773
    • This includes many non-club events, such as cons and author talks. It also includes “blank” meetings, where a group was scheduled to meet but I was unable to determine if they met or what they discussed.
  • Total Discussions: 1,935
    • This is slightly higher than the total number of meetings, as some meetings that discussed multiple works or authors were split up to capture that information.
  • Total Titles: 1,096
    • Trilogies and series that were discussed only as a whole and only once were considered as one title. Series that were discussed variously by individual title were broken up by title. For example, while numerous groups discussed Okorafor’s Binti in entirety, multiple groups discussed one or two titles, so wherever those books appeared the titles were counted individually. Graphic novels and comics, whether collected or not, were recorded as individual titles.
  • Total Authors: 714
    • This mostly disregards illustrators. For co-written works, if neither author had any separate individually-authored titles, they were considered as a single datapoint. Multi-author collections count the editor as the author, and are not tracked for the authors/titles the collection contained.
    • The Top 104: There were several points where it was useful to analyze just the most-discussed authors; these 104 authors were all discussed at least 5 times each.
  • Total Clubs: 182
    • Of these “clubs”, over 40 are named, persistent SF groups, while the rest are a mix of non-SF groups that occasionally discuss SF titles and one-off events, mostly from libraries, that may or may not represent ongoing groups.
    • The Top 20: In many categories, separate analysis is included for the top 20 groups. They each have at least 24 discussions recorded, and offer better insight into “self-identified genre-reading groups” than the dataset as a whole.
  • Time Range: 2002-2020
    • About 70% of all data come from the 5 complete calendar years that Positron has been running: 2015-2019. Data from 2002 through 2013 relies entirely on the existence and accessibility of groups’ records through websites or social media.

  • Race and gender were data points I wanted to consider, but given the number of authors involved my research was fairly superficial.
  • It’s very likely that I have misgendered some folks accidentally. Male, female, and nonbinary were the only gender categories I used, and tried to base the determination on author bios and pronouns indicated, assisted by lists of nonbinary speculative writers.
  • Race analysis was also extremely simplistic: I attempted to classify authors as “white” or a “person of color”, uneasily setting aside the complexity and cultural fraughtness of those terms and the difficulty of reducing it to just 2 categories. Author bios were used in conjunction with lists of speculative authors of color and resources from the Carl Brandon Society. Again, I have likely made mistakes.
  • Further Reading, to give some context:

  • Defining science fiction and fantasy is a perennial activity of SF readers. For the purpose of this analysis, I needed a very reductive definition. The majority of works on the list fit obviously into one category or the other; where works could potentially be classified as either or both, I used the “possible/plausible” smell-test. Works that combine elements of science fiction and fantasy, such as Charlie Jane Anders’ All the Birds In the Sky, are thus categorized as fantasy, since the explicit inclusion of “impossible” or “supernatural” magic disqualifies the work from the category of science fiction.
  • This simplistic scheme was difficult to apply to areas and subgenres such as horror and steampunk. With both of those examples, I am personally less well-acquainted, and they have tricky boundaries between fantasy and science fiction. Where horror titles did not seem to contain any supernatural elements, they were classified as non-fantastic. Superhero-related titles were generally classified as fantasy, with some exceptions. With more literary fiction, framing devices sometimes made for strange calls: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay seems to belong to the non-fantastic by that standard, while Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, despite its unicorns and dreamland, is science fiction.
  • It should also be noted that the source of these titles—the Positron calendar—is purposefully very broad about what qualifies as speculative fiction. Furthermore, the individual groups which provide the majority of this data typically have stated or unstated generic preferences.

Additional note

I posted some rambly debriefing discussion of the report process on my personal blog.

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