It's time for a little time-tripping with Dave Kyle's newest fan history article.
This time Dave takes us all the way back to the 1930s and the earliest days of
science fiction fandom. Back then, there weren't any conventions; there wasn't any
organized fandom at all, except for a few isolated big-city fan clubs. And then,
Hugo Gernsback organized...
Now here's a question which is a puzzlement -- how do you, a science fiction fan, explain yourself to the uninitiated?
"My interest is science fiction," I state. "I'm a science fiction fan," I confess. Do I sound proud? Perhaps a bit defensive? What does 'fan' mean? Does one launch into some more-or-less involved explanation? I'm more than just a reader, see. That I write it, or once published it, or was an sf editor and artist doesn't clarify my status of 'fan'. As for 'fandom'... that's even harder to explain.
Do you do what I do -- talk about being an enthusiast for a special form of fiction which stretches your horizons and provokes all sorts of good and wonderful ideas? "Science fiction -- it stimulates the imagination. It makes one think. And for me, there's a sort of fraternity, a social group of special people, but no, there's no special, official name." Do they understand that when I wear a pin it can only be a substitution, like the British Interplanetary Society? (For my fan gatherings I can wear my First Fandom blazer patch or, for the most obvious identification, my St. Fantony 'S/F' patch -- which is why I so often do. Too many times, I fear, I embarrass my wife Ruth, also a fan, who despairs of my being a "...gosh-wow, gee-whiz, propeller beanie-wearing, over-exuberant, dinosaur Fa-a-a-n." And she says I can quote her.)
My best elucidation for the ignorant about my unusual addiction is to mention The World Science Fiction Society -- for the world conventions. How does one describe a world science fiction convention, although in existence for over half a century? (I wish it would make sense to say that for over fifty years I've been a member of the SCIENCE FICTION LEAGUE.)
I could, I would, wear my Science Fiction League lapel button -- if I hadn't lost it in the distant past. (It cost me 35¢ nearly sixty years ago, which was a small fortune to me then.)
The Science Fiction League? Can it really be true that most 'science fiction fans' may never even have heard of it? Oh, how sad that moment in time when it was snuffed out of existence! Proclaim: FIJAWOA. Fandom Is Just A Way Of Anarchy -- were the New York Fanarchists right?
Once upon a time, I almost believed that Hugo Gernsback clapped his hands and thundered: "Let there be scientifictionists! Let there be fandom!"
Maybe I was right!?
The moment of creation is right there, bursting out of the Frank R. Paul cover of Hugo Gernsback's Wonder Stories of May 1934. A large round spot of glorious red and blue and yellow. SCIENCE FICTION LEAGUE, reads the ring of words. In the bulls-eye is a spaceship accelerating past the earth.
How did this happen? It was the talented touch of the finger of the mighty one himself. It was Hugo Gernsback who did it, of course.
Going back in the history of science fiction, few things had greater importance than the founding in 1926 of the unique, popular-oriented, American science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories. Gernsback did it.
Tracing the track of the history of science fiction fandom, nothing has had greater significance, importance, and universal effect than the formation in 1934 of the Science Fiction League. Gernsback did it.
The SFL came to life in Amazing's competitor, Wonder Stories. This monthly periodical was the amalgamated descendent in 1930 of the second and third ever sf magazines, Science Wonder Stories and Air Wonder Stories, both established in 1929. Gernsback started all them, too.
(Coincidentally, probably not inspired by the sudden appearance of the Gernsback SFL, there appeared about a month later a fan-created 'International Science Fiction Guild'. It put out a fanzine, called simply the ISFG Bulletin. The following year the ISFG changed its name to the Terrestrial Fantascience Guild and faded away. Incidentally, I got into the fan club/organization game in 1934, thinking to fill the void left by the inactivity of somebody else's 'ScienceFiction Advancement Association', by planning [unfulfilled] 'The Legion of Science Fiction Improvement'. About this time, I published my first fanzine, Fantasy World. Then in 1936-1937, newly arrived in New York City, I pushed my 1935 dream of the 'Phantasy Legion' and the 'Phantasy Legion Guild' for writers and artists. I was now thoroughly immersed in the boiling fan scene of the time. The 'Legion' had a brief, hot life which expanded out into other centers of fandom, but it died as only an imitation of the SFL which was by then firmly rooted and growing.)
So, no wonder, not at all amazing, that the single individual whose influence was most profound at the beginnings of fandom was, of course, Hugo Gernsback. It is fitting that the annual sf awards given by fans should have been spontaneously named after him.
Gernsback created the pioneering SFL for two reasons. The first, quite naturally, was to solidify his magazine readership and thus make money. The second was much more high-minded -- he passionately believed in that vigorously growing new type of literature, science fiction. He was a proselyte, with a special interest in science-hobbyists, and he wanted to spread the word through the power of the press.
The SFL had a natural evolution. Gernsback had established contact with the readers of Amazing in January 1927 through a department called "Discussions" which published their letters. At first, the letters were identified only by initials and cities; later the correspondents' complete names were printed and still later, full addresses were added. He followed the practice in his Wonder publications with "The Reader Speaks." But it was the Science Fiction League, in 1934, which united individual fans around the world into a fraternity.
Researching the early days of the Amazing "Discussions" department uncovers a letter from nineteen-year-old Holger E. Lindgren of Olympia, Washington, in the October 1927 issue. In it, he says, "I have just finished reading a letter in 'Discussions' about forming a Young Men's Science Club." Because, he notes, the location is limited to the New Jersey area, he suggests an 'International Science Club' by correspondence. The editor replies that Amazing Stories would be willing to act as 'official organ', and would "...set apart a page every month for news of the Club." Although this offer did not materialize into anything significant, it marked the earliest interest leading to Gernsback's Science Fiction League.
However instrumental Gernsback was in the development of science fiction fandom, the genesis actually began independently, earlier in the 1920s. (Once again, the fact is that Gernsback during those years was stimulating the interest of readers in 'pseudoscientific stories' in the letter columns of Radio News and Science and Invention magazines. Incidentally, as a forerunner of the SFL, he earlier established the Short Wave League.)
Beginning the second decade of the twentieth century, when there was no name for 'science fiction' (which Gernsback first used in the start-up of his 1929 Wonder magazines), the focus of activity by readers was on the science and not the fiction of the writing. This is a very important distinction. 'Science clubs' were being talked about, and although Gernsback had manufactured the term 'scientifiction' -- he contraction of the words 'scientific' and 'fiction' -- here was no idea of forming stf clubs. Instead, about the time of the appearance of his second sf magazine, Science Wonder Stories, enthusiasts formed the 'Science Correspondence Club', encouraged by Raymond A. Palmer and other early fans. That club is noted for having published seventeen, mostly monthly, issues of a fan magazine. The first issue, dated May 1930, was titled The Comet. Later issues became Cosmology. The emphasis was very much on science articles and discussions. Then, about this time, science fiction readers in the metropolitan area of New York were gathering together for meetings. The group (which included the now-deceased Mort Weisinger and the now very-active Julius Schwartz) called themselves 'The Scienceers'. Because the members' interests gradually shifted from science to fiction, this club was in reality the first truly-sf club, and marked the beginning of fandom as we know it. Two months after the appearance of The Comet, the Scienceers published The Planet. Then, shortly thereafter, there arrived what was probably the first true fanzine: The Time Traveler, which led quickly to the eminently successful Fantasy Magazine metamorphosing into the preeminent Science Fiction Digest.
With the demise by 1934 of The Science Correspondence Club (which had evolved into the International Scientific Association [ISA] ) and the Scienceers and Science Fiction Digest, the stage was set. In that spring of 1934, I was now into my 15th year of life, a sophomore in the Monticello, New York, High School, and into my third year of being a genuine sf fan. The fireworks for me were about to begin.
The opening skyrocket was launched from the single editorial page in the April issue of Wonder, "An Announcement by Hugo Gernsback." Huge in the middle of the enveloping words was the emblem of the LEAGUE -- a fat, multi-rocketed spaceship crossing a distant earth.
Gernsback began by stating that: "It may be said that science fiction, as a popular movement, has finally arrived. While science fiction, as such, is not new (but goes back to Edgar Allan Poe, and even further) the vogue of science fiction has steadily gained new followers in every part of the world." He went on to talk about the "...thousands and thousands of active fans..." who were serious about the 'artistic endeavor' and who collected stories and did research in the field. He said he watched its growth since his first 1926 magazine, and now believed one coordinating, comprehensive international group should be formed, "...to become the parent organization of innumerable local science fiction clubs throughout the world."
(The idea almost succeeded. Fan feuding and financial difficulties with Gernsback'spublishing empire in the throes of the Great Depression weakened the effort. The spiral downward had begun. Twenty years later, in connection with my chairmanship of the 14th World Science Fiction Convention in New York, I tried to recapture the dream by creating the World Science Fiction Society, Inc. After a tempestuous score of months, the dream exploded into a nightmare of fan feuding and lawsuits, and the corporation was destroyed. Today, the name survives from year to year with the worldcons, but the international fraternity of 'a parent organization of innumerable local science fiction clubs throughout the world' as visualized by Gernsback doesn't exist.)
Wonder Stories, Gernsback pledged, would be the medium to report the activities of the League, "...a non-commercial membership organization without dues or fees of any kind. It is purely a literary, scientific organization for the betterment and promotion of scientific literature in all languages." As always, true to his convictions, Gernsback, though inviting "...anyone interested in science fiction to become a member," was stressing 'science' as the foundation. There was the promise of lapel buttons, seals, stationery, etc. ('selling at cost') "...to enhance not only the standing of the LEAGUE but the popularity of science fiction as well." He told us to: "Watch for complete details in our next issue!" Wow!
Enough of Gernsback. (I have already paid fulsome homage to Hugo Gernsback in my book, The Pictorial History of Science Fiction [Hamlyn, London, 1976] when I chose him as one of the four great men in modern sf, the other three being Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and John W. Campbell, jr., and said that he was "...a pioneer who foresaw [the advance of science and technology and] created his own power of communication and then had the inspiration to use it in his own personal crusade.") Now for the progress of his Science Fiction League...
For the following weeks during that spring of 1934, I haunted the newsstands with building anticipation. Then came the day. That May 1934 issue, with the colorful SFL emblem on the cover, jumped off the rack and injected me with a shot of adrenaline. There was a four-page editorial by Hugo himself. I was told that the idealistic purpose was for "...several thousands of our 75,000 readers..." to join and "...spread the gospel of science-fiction and increase our followers," as it is an "educational literature" for the world which "...broadens the minds of the readers." This fact the membership "...should emphasize at every opportunity." Yet, even "...more important than educating..." is science-fiction's "...facility for making you want to learn more about things..." and this, Gernsback's conviction was, would lead more young people into careers of science. (And, as a matter of fact, sf has a genuine record of having done so many times over.)
The first printed responses came in the July issue with four letters. The first was from Lloyd Arthur Eshbach, who volunteered to undertake "...a big boost..." by immediately soliciting new members, and said, "I think the Science Fiction League an excellent idea and it should do much toward the popularizing of science-fiction." (The hyphenation was a style used at the time for both noun and adjective.)
The second letter was from Raymond A. Palmer, who pledged that his ISA "...with chapters all over the world..." would become "...a branch of the SFL, with each group of members a chapter of the SFL, so I have no doubt that you will immediately have some 400 members working for you tooth and nail."
The third letter was from Milton A. Rothman, who in turn said, "I am going to try to start a local chapter in the Central High School..." which idea Gernsback had encouraged from the outset, mentioning all educational institutions. Shortly thereafter, Rothman's SFL Chapter Eleven in Philadelphia during the winter of 1934-35 combined with the stronger Boy's SF Club in Philadelphia (Robert A. Madle being a prime force) and a year later commenced its life as the Philadelphia SF Society, a legendary club which still is going exceptionally well.
The fourth and final letter was "...a message from David A. Kyle" (By Golly, it really was me!) which, the editor said, "..is typical of the enthusiasm." I am quoted in part as saying: "Ever since the May issue came out, I've been running around in circles. I just feel like shouting with all my might and beating a tin pan. You guessed it! -- It's the SCIENCE FICTION LEAGUE! That's something that I've been trying to start for the past year. The principles of it simply take my breath away! I hope it results in international correspondence. The principles are excellent. The insignia is excellent. And speaking of the Board, it looks like a Hall of Fame, with Forrest J Ackerman and Jack Darrow on it. I recognized the insignia at once when I saw it. The space-ship is the same one that was illustrated on the cover of the first Science Wonder Quarterly published. The name of it was the Greyon." Naturally, it was Frank R. Paul who did the design. As for my reference to the 'Board' -- the Executive Directors -- the seven named were the original 'honorary members and incorporators'. Besides the notorious young letter writers, Ackerman and Darrow, they were Eando Binder, Edmond Hamilton, Dr. David H. Keller, P. Schuyler Miller, and R. F. Starzl, with Hugo Gernsback as Executive Secretary and Charles D. Hornig as Assistant Secretary. Hornig, a teen-age fan who had captured Gernsback's attention the year before through publication of a fanzine, was managing editor of Wonder and certainly deserves his place today in First Fandom's Hall of Fame.
As members joined, they were given numbers. The honor of being Number One went to George Gordon Clark of Brooklyn. I was very late sending in my application, so I got a high number, 359. I still have my certificate among my sf souvenirs. There was a good reason for my being slow to fill out the simple form and send it in -- I didn't have the money right away. The cost was fifteen cents.
Subsequent issues had many innovations. In July, a 'Science Fiction Swap Column' was introduced at a "...ridiculously low cost" (for 2cents a word). By September, a list was printed of names and addresses of those wishing to strike up correspondence. By October, there was a list of 15 potential chapters, including Liverpool, England; Shanghai, China; and the Philippines. (Sydney, Australia showed up by December.) Eventually, the first overseas chapter was in Leeds, England, organized by Douglas F. Mayer, but best known for the activities of J. Michael Rosenblum and as the centre of British fan and pro activities. There is much merit to the claim that Leeds on January 3, 1937, and not Philadelphia in the autumn of 1936, was the site of the first science fiction convention, because the Philadelphia 'convention' started as an intercity visit by New York City fans, whereas the Leeds event had been planned and advertised for all of Britain. (Another legitimate claim for the first convention was marred by travel delays -- the official visit to New York by Jack Darrow, William Dillenback, and Otto Binder [one-half of Eando Binder] in June of 1934 at SFL headquarters. An impressive number of local fans and pros had assembled for the occasion which the Chicago trio missed.) Also, in the October 1934 issue was the suggestion by a member for the establishment of a 'University of Science Fiction' as a department of the SFL, leading to the awarding, through tests, of various degrees such as B.Stf. and D.Stf. (Bachelor and Doctor of Science Fiction, but using the old Gernsbackian abbreviation for scientifiction).
The November Wonder, with more news of developing activities, printed a number of ideas from members. My contribution was a lengthy one about organizing District Chapters for 'unfortunate members', those who lived isolated in small towns and rural areas. My vision was to develop close relationships within certain bounds leading to postal discussions, friendships, and the possibilities of visits, maybe even occasional club meetings. I was thanked for my kind suggestion, but the idea was dismissed with the logic that the correspondence connection column would solve that problem, that chapters were for personal contacts, and that district chapters would be more limiting than unifying, Nevertheless, that idea continually persisted.
A new idea was advanced in December, the 'Ace Member'. Get a letter published in a newspaper, inspire an editorial, do something to promote sf to the general public and you could be an 'Ace Member'. This idea was due recognition for the successes by a number of members. Also in that issue, Thomas S. Gardner of Johnson City, Tennessee (and later of New Jersey) elaborated on the idea of tests leading to a 'science fiction degree'.
The year of 1935 for the SFL started off with a bang (appropriately, there was such an explosion depicted on the cover of Wonder, illustrating David H. Keller's story, "One Way Tunnel," as painted by Frank R. Paul.) This issue had the most information ever, plus "The First Science Fiction Test" to earn a B.Stf degree. Other tests would follow every six months. This issue is also very noteworthy for the space devoted to a "Complaint from a Member." The complainer was the yet-to-be-notorious William S. Sykora himself. There was an exchange of letters between him and the editor over the proper use of SFL stationery: Sykora said SFL rules were being broken and stated his case, and the editor disagreed. The seeds were being sown for the vendetta against Wonder Stories and Hugo Gernsback through bitter letters and accusations which would later develop into legalistic controversies, mostly revolving around certain SFL chapters. This was a harbinger for the decades of fannish feuds which were fated to follow.
Finally, by the February 1935 issue, the official formation of chapters was announced. I had filed for and received a charter for Monticello [N.Y.] Science Fiction League Chapter Number Five. Despite what Fred Pohl is fond of saying, I did not join under many different names to make the requirements. (The rascal did those things himself.) I actually recruited some high school pals: Walter Scheible, Charles Kaufman, Israel Ellenberg, Abraham Wolf, and William Rothleder. I reported that: "We assemble Sundays at five o'clock in the office of my father. We hope to make this Chapter worthy of the Science Fiction League." Walter, Charles, and Izzy were neighbors, while Willie and Abe lived on the other side of the village. We planned to put out a fanzine, just as Clark, Member Number One, did for his Brooklyn Science Fiction League Chapter Number One, with The Brooklyn Reporter. As the head of SFL Chapter Five, I was sent a copy. We (actually, just me) did about two or three of our own, making carbon copies, but the amateurish efforts quickly vanished without a trace.
The SFL Chapter (Number 14) that included the biggest names of the day, such as Jack Darrow, was in Chicago (with its outstanding The Fourteen Leaflet publication). However, the Number Ten New York SFL Chapter eclipsed Chicago and Brooklyn for prestige. It was the first club which actually brought the fans and the pros together. Among the New York members were Julius Schwartz and Conrad H. Rupert (both still seen today at conventions) -- and the hyperactive William S. Sykora, John B. Michel, and Donald A. Wollheim.
I remember that February issue for something else, too. I had my first nom-de-plume letter published, signed 'The Purple Bat'. Re-reading it, I'm impressed that I managed to sound less juvenile than usual and had some worthwhile critical analyses. Bob Madle has never forgotten that letter, and still refers to me, almost sixty years later, as the Purple Bat. (This is my very first public confession of our secret, Bob.)
Metropolitan New York has always seemed to be a cauldron of trouble in the fan world. There have been friendly conflicts, of course -- but very bitter ones, too. The SFL encouraged fellowship and harmony, but it also fed egocentrism and the struggles for power. None of us active fans were untouched. Clark's Chapter One, at the zenith of organized fandom, bred jealousy and would soon lose its preeminence. An aggressive rival group, later to become the Eastern New York SFL Chapter, coalesced into a sub-chapter and became Brooklyn's successor. (I got involved in the action, but not in the personality conflicts. The official organ of the ENYSFL was Arcturus, the competitor of The Brooklyn Reporter, and I drew a cover for it, directly on mimeo stencil, depicting the fannish legend of Ghu emerging from the egg.) Sam Moskowitz, in The Immortal Storm, ends a chapter on the rise of the SFL with a view of this "sensational" rivalry, and makes an extravagant judgement: He says that the climax to the squabble "...was an explosion which rocked the Science Fiction League to its very foundations..." At the time, that's the way it was seen by some locally, if not in the rest of the world.
A combination of events eventually led to the expelling from the SFL on June 12, 1935, as officially published later, in the September Wonder, of three New York members "...for disloyalty." They were William S. Sykora, John B. Michel, and Donald A. Wollheim. What happened and the repercussions over the ensuing years will be skipped here by me. Unpleasant events have been happening in New York fandom decade after decade. As Moskowitz knows, that's a book in itself!
Throughout 1935, more and more magazine space was given to the news from the Chapters. The underlying problems developing around the New York City area were neither really recognized nor taken seriously by me or others, even after the June expulsions. In retrospect, that published SFL report had furnished many hints. However, only after my arrival on the New York scene, as the summer of 1936 ended, when I entered the storm center did I observe and somewhat understand the fannish thunder and lightning, finally personally involved with the BNFs and thus party to their schemes.
The April 1935 issue was of particular interest to me, because it listed 41 names of those who had passed "The First Science Fiction Test." I was at the top of the list! Why that was so, I don't know. My score was 92% (with Lionel Dilbeck), but we didn't have the highest. Forry Ackerman, Lewis F. Torrance, and William H. Dellenback tied at the top with 97%. Milty Rothman and Julie Schwartz shared the next honors with four others at 95%, followed by Doc Lowndes with two others at 94% and five at 93% including Tom Gardner, George Gordon Clark, and Don Wollheim. Being at the top of the list, however, certainly looked nice. Much data, such as the readers' favorite writers and stories, came from those tests. Other topics in that issue included a long report by Forry Ackerman on 'scientifilms' -- and more space to the Sykora controversy, foreboding things to come.
Month after month, through 1935 into 1936, the SFL information was poured out. More tests were given. More Chapters were chartered. More members were gained. Month after month, as befits a teenager, I worshipped at that temple. Incredibly, my first science fiction story, "Golden Nemesis," had been accepted and announced for a forthcoming issue.
Then the world ended after April 1936. Wonder Stories was gone. Hugo Gernsback, too, was gone.
There arose out of the ashes of that calamity a new creature: Thrilling Wonder Stories. The world had come back into existence, but it was not the same: the publisher was new -- Leo Margulies, the entrepreneur of a string of pulps. The editor had changed, another young fan. The content and format were different. Hugo Gernsback no longer spoke to me or to the League. Even the inimitable Frank R. Paul had seemingly vanished. The SFL still existed, but it now was a mutated thing which I unreasonably, emotionally rejected. Perhaps cruelest of all was receiving the page proofs of "Golden Nemesis" with its Charles Schneeman illustration, and being told it would not be published. Over time, beyond my concern, the SFL faded away.
As spring bloomed in 1936 to mock the departed, I was still in high school, still a science fiction fan, but, abruptly, my umbilical cord had been severed. The world of my youth now changed. I moved to New York in 1936 to go to art school. No more Gernsback -- but, instead, I found the personal world of fandom -- the young men who became my lifelong friends, Wilson, Wollheim, Wylie, Pohl -- the whole arena of action of the ISA -- the 'first con' of 1936 -- the politics and intrigue of the fading SFL, the ISFL (Independent SFL) -- the 'Bohemian Hall' con of the ISA (possibly the first true con, because it was well planned and advertised, and included the professionals) which started the new year of 1937 -- the coming of the famous Queens SFL out of the sabotaged Greater NY SFL and the wreck of the ISA... The fannish world of my youth had evolved into a higher form.
One year before the shocking demise of Gernsback's science fiction publications, the May 1935 Wonder had printed my brief essay, taken from my First SF Test, on "Why Do You Read Science Fiction?" The optimistic song I had sung then, in all its extravagant, flowery language was, in the post-Gernsback decades, a tune I still believed. It sings in my heart to this day. I still believe. And I wish there was a national organization, like the old SFL, to which I could pledge my identity.
After all, I'm an Ace Member of the defunct-but-still-here-in-spirit SFL, with a 92%-rated degree in STF (read that SF) -- and as Wonder Stories once proclaimed my boast, "My middle name is Ackerman!"
All illustrations by Joe Mayhew