Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘New Fandom

Days of Futurians Past

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The Futurians

On July 2, 1939, the First World Science Fiction Convention was held in New York. It was a landmark weekend for many reasons, but it was almost immediately overshadowed by an event that took place before it was even called to order. The preparations had been marked by a conflict between two rival convention committees, with a group called New Fandom, which the fan Sam Moskowitz had cobbled together solely for the purpose of taking over the planning process, ultimately prevailing. On the other side were the Futurians, who were less a formal club than an assortment of aspiring writers who had collected around the brilliant, infuriating Donald A. Wollheim. As the convention was about to begin, Wollheim and a handful of Futurians—including Frederik Pohl and Robert A.W. Lowndes—emerged from the elevator and headed toward the hall. What happened next has long been a matter of disagreement. According to Moskowitz, he was initially willing to let them in, but then he saw the stack of pamphlets that the group was planning to hand out, including one that called the convention committee “a dictatorship.” Thinking that they had come only to cause trouble, he asked each of them to promise to behave, and those who refused, in his words, “chose to remain without.” Wollheim later gave a very different account, claiming that the decision to exclude the Futurians, later known hyperbolically as “The Great Exclusion Act,” had been made months in advance. In any event, Wollheim and his friends left, and although there were some rumblings from the other attendees, the rest of the convention was a notable success.

So why should we care about a petty squabble that took place nearly eighty years ago, the oldest players in which were barely out of their teens? (One of the few Futurians who made it inside, incidentally, was Isaac Asimov, who wandered nervously into the convention hall, where he received an encouraging shove forward from John W. Campbell.) For me, it’s fascinating primarily because of what happened next. New Fandom won the dispute, leaving it in an undisputed position of power within the fan community. The Futurians retreated to lick their wounds. Yet the names of New Fandom’s leaders—Moskowitz, Will Sykora, and James V. Taurasi—are unlikely to ring any bells, except for those who are already steeped in the history of fandom itself. All of them remained active in fan circles, but only Moskowitz made a greater impression on the field, and that was as a critic and historian. The Futurians, by contrast, included some of the most influential figures in the entire genre. Asimov, the most famous of them all, was a Futurian, although admittedly not a particularly active one. Wollheim and Pohl made enormous contributions as writers and editors. Other names on the roster included Cyril Kornbluth, Judith Merril, James Blish, and Damon Knight, all of whom went on to have important careers. The Great Exclusion Act, in other words, was a turning point, but not the sort that anyone involved would have been able to predict at the time. The Futurians were on their way up, while the heads of New Fandom, while not exactly headed downhill, would stay stuck in the same stratum. They were at the apex of the fan pyramid, but there was yet another level to which they would never quite ascend. Next month, I’ll be taking part in a discussion at the 74th World Science Fiction Convention, which in itself is a monument to the house that New Fandom built. But the panel is called “The Futurians.”

New Fandom

And it’s important to understand why. As the loose offspring of several earlier organizations, New Fandom lacked the sheer closeness of the Futurians, who were joined by mutual affection, rivalry, and a shared awe of Wollheim. Many of them lived together in the Ivory Tower, which was a kind of combination dorm, writer’s colony, and flophouse. They were united by the qualities that turned them into outsiders: many had been sickly children, estranging them from their peers, and they were all wretchedly poor. (In Damon Knight’s The Futurians, Virginia Kidd, who was married to James Blish, describes how the two of them survived for months on a single bag of rice.) More than a few, notably Wollheim and John Michel, were sympathetic to communism, while others took leftist positions mostly because they liked a good fight. And of course, they were all trying—and mostly failing—to make a living by writing science fiction. As Knight shrewdly notes:

This Futurian pattern of mutual help and criticism was part of a counterculture, opposed to the dominant culture of professional science fiction writers centering around John Campbell…The Futurians would have been happy to be part of the Campbell circle, but they couldn’t sell to him; their motto, in effect, was “If you can’t join ‘em, beat ‘em.”

Like all countercultures, the Futurian lifestyle was a pragmatic solution to the problem of how to live. None of them was an overnight success. But by banding together, living on the cheap, and pitting themselves against the rest of the world, they were able to muddle along until opportunity knocked.

The difference between New Fandom and the Futurians, then, boils down to this: New Fandom was so good at being a fan organization that its members were content to be nothing but fans. The Futurians weren’t all that good at much of anything, either as fans or writers, so they regrouped and hung on until they got better. (As a result, when a genuine opening appeared, they were in a position to capitalize on it. When Pohl unexpectedly found himself the editor of Astonishing Stories at the age of nineteen, for instance, he could only fill the magazine by stocking it with stories by his Futurian friends, since nobody else was willing to write for half a cent per word.) New Fandom and its successors were machines for producing conventions, while the Futurians just quietly kept generating writers. And their success arose from the very same factors—their poverty, their physical shortcomings, their unfashionable political views, their belligerence—that had estranged them from the mainstream fan community in the first place. It didn’t last long: Wollheim, in typical fashion, blew up his own circle of friends in 1945 by suing the others for libel. But the seeds had been planted, and they would continue to grow for decades. The ones who found it hard to move on after The Great Exclusion Act were the winners. As Wollheim said to Knight:

Years later, about 1953, I got a phone call from William Sykora; he wanted to come over and talk to me…And he said what he wanted to do was get together with Michel and me, and the three of us would reorganize fandom, reorganize the clubs, and go out there and control fandom…And about ten years after that, he turned up at a Lunacon meeting, out of nowhere, with exactly the same plan. And again you had the impression that for him, it was still 1937.

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

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