Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Back to the Futurians

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New Fandom

The study of social networks—and in particular of how ideas travel from one person to another—can pose infuriating problems, especially if you’re trying to follow along in real time. Entire movements have a way of exploding into existence online and disappearing before you have a chance to react, and their beginnings and endings can fall so close together that it can be hard to see the intermediate stages. From the point of view of sociological analysis, it would be nice if we could find a way to slow it all down. In his excellent book The Art of Game Design, Jesse Schell recommends putting together a paper prototype of a game, even for something like Tetris, both because it’s easy to make and because it naturally decelerates the process, allowing you to study each step. Speaking of a hypothetical paper version of Doom, Schell describes a setup with cardboard pieces and a metronome, then writes:

Configure your metronome to tick once every five seconds, and make a rule that you can move one square of graph paper with every tick…This will give the feeling of playing the whole thing in slow motion, but that can be a good thing, because it gives you time to think about what is working and not working while you are playing the game.

On a similar level, we’d learn a lot about social networks and virality if we could somehow reduce it to paper form. It would slow it down, allowing us to examine the components at our leisure and trace the interactions from one stage to the next, while leaving a paper trail to show us exactly how an idea spread and mutated from its point of origin.

In fact, at least one paper version of a social network does exist: the early science fiction community. I got to thinking about this while reading The Immortal Storm: A History of Science Fiction Fandom by the fan and historian Sam Moskowitz. It’s a book that has a deserved reputation for being unreadable: even Isaac Asimov, who know most of the players firsthand, found it hard to finish. There’s something undeniably amusing about its endless, detailed descriptions of disputes and controversies that occurred within fan clubs with fewer than a dozen teenage members in the late thirties. Really, though, it’s in the same vein as the oral histories of newsgroups, or even individual threads, that have started to appear in recent years, and it gains additional interest from the fact that many of the participants—Asimov, Donald A. Wollheim, Frederik Pohl—went on to become pivotal figures in the genre. The overall beats of the story are familiar to anyone who has experienced fandom’s ability to bring people together and tear them apart in the same breath. (Moskowitz describes one club, with a total of five members, that immediately split into two irreconcilable factions.) But if the patterns are the same, it’s also emphatically a story about paper: magazines, letters, fan publications. As Moskowitz writes:

The early fan publications were not only the pride but the very foundation of the field…History is a systematic record of man’s progress, and we turn to their magazines to discern the story of science fiction fans’ progress—and progress it was.

Fantasy Magazine

And it’s a kind of progress, with frequent moments of regression and implosion, that will immediately ring a bell for anyone with experience of online communities. Science fiction fandom began in the letters columns of pulp magazines like Amazing and Astounding, which provided a forum in which fans could communicate and learn one another’s names and addresses. This wasn’t what the editors had in mind, but much like later platforms like Twitter or Reddit, the user base quickly appropriated the available infrastructure for ends that their creators never intended. (Among the fans who met through through a shared love of Amazing were Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who went on to create Superman.) The letters pages led to private correspondence between fans, followed by meetings in person, at least in cities—Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, and above all New York—where the population density was great enough to allow a critical mass of enthusiasts to congregate. The fans in question were almost invariably white males: then as now, communities tend to attract new members who look pretty much like the ones who are already there, although there were a few striking exceptions. Most were teenagers, the equivalent of the youthful early adopters who have driven nearly every successful form of social media. They also took advantage of new technology, notably the mimeograph and the hectograph, to print fanzines and newsletters. Some of the organizations were “sponsored,” after they had already come into existence, by magazines like Wonder Stories, which devoted a few column inches to promoting favored groups like the Science Fiction League. This led, in turn, to accusations that such clubs had sold out, and that the real fans were the ones who were opposed to the establishment. Sound familiar?

The resulting clubs and fanzines were shaped by the many of the same forces that we see online today. Fan magazines began as a place to discuss science fiction, but they quickly became a closed world of their own, with running jokes, insider references, and memes that had the effect of excluding outsiders. An ongoing fake controversy about the use of wire staples by the pulps, for instance, spiraled into a war of letters between groups like the Society for Prevention of Wire Staples in Scientifiction Magazines, or SPWSSTFM, which feels a lot like the labored gags we find today on Reddit. And like any close community of fans—for much of the thirties, there were fewer than fifty active members—it was dominated by a handful of strong personalities, many of whom came to prominence by their frequent appearance in the letters columns, which was the equivalent of being upvoted. Donald A. Wollheim, for example, became a major force in later years as a writer and editor, but in his twenties, he was basically the first known troll. He alienated just about every other fan at one point or another, and his favorite trick was to find a vulnerable club, take it over, and dissolve it. (In response to one controversy, fans passed around what Moskowitz demurely describes as “numerous unsigned drawings [of Wollheim], some of which were quite pornographic.”) And many supposedly ideological conflicts, like the feud between New Fandom and the Futurians, were really about clashes of personality. Tomorrow, I’ll go into more detail about one dispute, which culminated in a confrontation at the First World Science Fiction Convention, and the light that it casts on issues that we’re still seeing today.

Written by nevalalee

July 26, 2016 at 9:41 am

4 Responses

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  1. So you’ve found Sam Moscowitz.

    Ahead of THE IMMORTAL STORM, I’d call your attention to Moscowitz’s SEEKERS OF TOMORROW: MASTERS OF MODERN SCIENCE FICTION, first pub. 1965, if you haven’t already seen it.

    The book has biographies and discussions of John Campbell, E. E. Smith, Murray Leinster, Edmond Hamilton, Jack Williamson, Eric Frank Russell, Lester del Rey, Robert Heinlein, A. E. van Vogt, Theodore Sturgeon, Isaac Asimov, Clifford D. Simak, Fritz Leiber, C. L. Moore, Henry Kuttner, Robert Bloch, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Philip José Farmer, and others.

    During an online exchange with Gardner Dozois a decade or two back, I once mentioned that this book by Moscowitz was the only thing I’d ever found that explained with any detail and plausibility who all these people who wrote American magazine SF were and how they came to do it, and Dozois replied that it was once all there was and still was in many cases (forex, the detailed separate biographies of Kuttner and Moore). Moscowitz, after all, personally knew most of authors he covers when he and those authors were young. His book has much information that even now cannot be found anywhere else, despite the proliferation of sources in recent decades thanks to the internet and the appearances of biographies about Heinlein, Kornbluth, Tiptree.

    Algis Budrys, reviewing SEEKERS OF TOMORROW in 1965, said: “Moskowitz knows and transmits, at least as much about the history of science fiction and its evolution, as anyone possibly could.”

    At least as much? Well, Moscowitz’s arguable downside is that, as Budrys added, “Moskowitz is a master of denotation. He wouldn’t know a connotation if it snapped at his ankle, which is something that happens quite often.” Which means, I think, that Moscowitz was big on mechanistic analyses of how author X’s presentation of trope Y was in fact influenced by author Z’s story in the March 1938 issue of THRILLING WONDER STORIES, which in turn derived from etc, and so on.

    In practice, though, this means is that if you want the encyclopaedic analysis of – for the most obvious example – all of Cleve Cartmill’s and John Campbell’s possible influences when they were thinking about “Deadline,” Moscowitz will start with H.G. Wells’s atomic bombs in 1914, then walk the reader forward through every possible iteration of the idea published in the intervening decades. One doesn’t have to buy into Moscowitz’s literal-minded attributions of authors’ influences to find this exhaustive analysis – together with, again, his personal knowledge of the authors he was discussing – useful.

    From your viewpoint, writing a history of Campbellian SF, probably particularly useful.

    Mark Pontin

    July 26, 2016 at 6:38 pm

  2. @Mark: Thanks for the thoughtful comment! I’m familiar with Seekers of Tomorrow, mostly because its chapter on John W. Campbell and a later piece by Moskowitz in the magazine Fantasy Commentator are the only good sources in print—for now, anyway!—about Campbell’s early life. Texas A&M University was also kind enough to send me a copy of Moskowitz’s personal file on Campbell, which includes his handwritten notes from their interviews. There’s a lot of interesting material there that doesn’t appear anywhere else. (Moskowitz’s files are a huge trove of unexplored raw data on the history of science fiction. I haven’t seen all of it, but I’m hoping to dive into it more deeply one of these days.)


    July 26, 2016 at 8:09 pm

  3. [1] ‘…its chapter on John W. Campbell and a later piece by Moskowitz in the magazine Fantasy Commentator are the only good sources in print—for now, anyway!—about Campbell’s early life.’

    There you go. I’ve got the book stuck away in storage myself, so it’s been decades since I actually looked at it. But that’s been my impression.

    [2] The first person who used the term Campbellian SF I ever read was Algis Budrys, in his column in the Pohl-edited GALAXY of the latter 1960s (which as a boy in London then I used to hunt down in backstreet bookstores in Soho that sold American SF publications, together with under-the-counter porn).

    In those GALAXY reviews, Budrys sold me (dumb kid that I was) on a Platonic conception of American magazine SF– and in particular Campbellian SF — as the exemplar and pure quill of the genre. Actually-existing American magazine SF never quite lived up to Budrys’s Platonic conception of it since. Simultaneously, this was the 1960s and Budrys would also review things like Robert Coover’s The UNIVERSAL BASEBALL ASSOCIATION INC., J. HENRY WAUGH, PROP, alongside the first publication of Herbert’s DUNE, Delany’s significant SF novels, Dick’s THREE STIGMATA OF PALMER ELDRITCH, Ballard, and much other classic New Wave-era stuff.

    I mention this because, before he was critic, Budrys was a writer, and his first story sale had been to John Campbell in 1953 (Budrys was part of a wave, with P.K. Dick and R. Sheckley, who entered SF then, with guys like Ellison and Silverberg coming along right afterwards). So, during the 1950s Budrys had an ongoing working relationship with Campbell (while simultaneously being H.L. Gold’s assistant at GALAXY for a time) and he wrote some perceptive things about Campbell in later years.

    I’d commend to your attention, then, the collected edition of Budrys’s GALAXY reviews, BENCHMARKS: GALAXY BOOKSHELF, which is easily enough found on Amazon. Budrys knew as much as Moscowitz, but unlike Moscowitz was a writer and could turn a sentence.In the 1970s, he moved over to doing his reviews for THE MAGAZINE OF F&SF, and did two columns back to back there that were an assessment of Campbell and ASTOUNDING’s golden age. David Langdon, the British fan, recently published Budrys’s F&SF reviews in three volumes, and the first, BENCHMARKS CONTINUED, 1975-1982, would contain that two-parter on Campbell. You can find it at a reasonable price here —

    Mark Pontin

    July 27, 2016 at 5:16 am

  4. @Mark: I really like Budrys, whose essays on Campbell were among the first things I read when I began seriously developing this book last year. His observations on Campbell and the shape of his career are very astute, and as you point out, he’s a much better writer than Moskowitz—those pieces are a joy to read for their own sake. (Budrys occasionally makes small factual errors, but they’re the kind that happen when you’re so familiar with your material that you can write about it without going back to check the sources.) Thanks for the recommendations—please keep them coming!


    July 28, 2016 at 6:23 am

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