Next up is an article by a former worldcon Chairman and Fan Guest of Honor at next year's Noreascon 4. Besides conventions and fanzines, one other route toward FIAWOL (and perhaps still the most common one) is through reading. Fandom originally came into existence because Hugo Gernsback decided to print the addresses of correspondents in his magazines' letters columns, and the unifying theme across the various types of science fiction fandom that have evolved into during the seven decades of its existence is still the 'sense of wonder' that happens when you encounter the stuff. In fact, the only real disadvantage to this approach is that it sometimes takes a bit longer to get there.
'Hovering on the Threshold' by Peter Weston; 
  title illo by Alan Hutchinson
Looking back now, I wonder what took me so long. There I was, hovering on the threshold and I didn't know it. With just a little more luck I might have got into fandom three or four years earlier, and everything would have been very different.

I bought my first adult science fiction book in late 1957, The Robert Heinlein Omnibus, as an introductory offer from the (British) Science Fiction Book Club. This consisted of the first two books of something called the "Future History," bound together in one volume.

Now, I'd never heard of this Heinlein chap, or his Future History, but that first book was an eye-opener. A bit dated, of course -- even by 1957 it was pretty clear that he'd gotten some details wrong. But I was intrigued by the idea of developing a consistent track for future events, and by his casual, matter-of-fact treatment of new ideas, particularly in the second volume. I was hooked, and immediately sent off to join the Club.

Every British fan of my generation will remember those Book Club editions, with their geometric-patterned paper covers in various colours. They were a godsend, bringing us a book every month, with titles like Wild Talent, The Demolished Man, Earth Abides, and more. This was at a time, remember, when paperback publishing was in its infancy in Britain, and there were no American imports. Science fiction was hard to find!

But prompted by the Heinlein book I recalled that I'd seen some science fiction magazines in a junkshop, just down the road, while I'd been looking for Superman comics. (These shops were on every corner in those days, a hangover from wartime shortages and rationing, full of old prams, household oddments and usually stacks of secondhand books and magazines.) I went and had a look, and came back with several secondhand magazines at 6d per copy.

The first one I opened was Astounding, dated October 1956, the issue with Murray Leinster's "Critical Difference," a splendid piece of pseudo-science which impressed me enormously, with its landing grid technology and a very clever solution to the problem facing Leinster's colony planet. His name must have registered, because almost immediately afterwards I acquired the September 1957 issue, with his "Ribbon in the Sky," which from the title and cover illustration I probably thought was a sequel.

But it was a great disappointment. Now, I understand why. In the first story Leinster had built the entire plot around a scientific problem and the gimmick which solved it. The second story is a much more ordinary, good-guys-vs.-bad-guys situation, and the clever idea is used merely as backdrop. However, that issue did contain "Among Thieves," a very satisfying story by Poul Anderson, along with Bertram Chandler with "Drift," and a piece of space-opera by Randall Garrett.

I'd also bought the first British issue of Galaxy, undated, but numbered 'Volume 3, No.1', with the blue cover and massive spaceship on the pad illustrating Willy Ley's article, "Space Travel By 1960?" Not actually a particularly good issue, but it had several short, snappy stories that I liked, and the second issue, the one with the Emsh cover showing "Galaxy's 2nd Birthday," was better. It had "Halo," by Hal Clement, "A Little Oil," by Eric Frank Russell, and "Baby Is Three" by Theodore Sturgeon (which I found a bit baffling at the time).

illo by Alan Hutchinson I made repeat visits, to this and other shops, and bought more issues of Galaxy and Astounding. And there were other magazines, too. If quickly became a favourite, with those wonderful wrap-around covers by Ken Fagg on the first half-dozen issues, none of which had anything to do with the stories inside. The first one I bought showed a robot on a sort of flying saucer diving into the Sun, and it contained William Tenn's brilliant story "The Custodian." Great stuff!

Science fiction hit me hard. By the end of 1957, I was firmly hooked, every Saturday morning taking the bus into the city to the Rag Market. This was an indoor market in a Victorian redbrick building, with cast-iron pillars, glass roof, and cobblestone floor. There were rows and rows of stalls, and you could buy almost anything -- cheap clothing and fabrics (hence the "Rag" in the title), household odds & ends, toys, china, and of course there were piles of secondhand comics, books and magazines.

I used to get there early and wait outside with a growing crowd until 1.00pm when they rang a bell and opened the gates. There was a mad scramble as the crowd surged forward, and in they rushed, some literally running in their eagerness for bargains! And I was in the front row, heading at full speed for the best stalls, firmly convinced that other people were trying to beat me to those precious science fiction magazines!

For the first year or two it was easy, since there was so much around. I'd come away with a pile each week, usually starting to read them on the bus on the way home. I didn't have much money so I had to be a bit choosy, and at first I wouldn't buy magazines containing second- or third-parts of serials, for instance, on the grounds that I didn't want issues that couldn't read right through at a sitting. I wasn't too keen, either, on those older issues of Astounding, the larger-sized, 64-page jobs from 1952 and before, with the crudely-painted covers.

(Later, I discovered that what I'd been collecting were only British Reprint Editions {BREs} of Galaxy and Astounding, stripped-down to 128 rather than 160 pages, shorn of many features like the letter-column, with stories omitted and covers repainted and switched-around to compensate for the 3-month delay in publishing over here. And while the American ASF had reverted to digest-size as long ago as 1943, the BRE remained pulp-size and at only 64 pages for another ten years, until 1953. They left a lot out!)

In those early days I also investigated the home-grown British magazines, but wasn't too impressed. They were harder to find, and the stories in New Worlds and Authentic didn't seem very substantial compared to my American favourites, so I tended to buy issues at random, read them and trade them away the following week. I thought the larger-sized Nebula was also a bit anaemic and lacking personality, but I did eventually collect a full run of the 40+ issues.

However, things became more frustrating and difficult as my collection grew more complete. Now I was looking for particular issues. The first four numbers of Galaxy were easy, but 5, 6, & 7 were like gold dust, they were nowhere to be found, not in the Rag Market nor in any junk-shop I'd visited. (I realise now that the publishers had probably reduced the print-run after seeing the returns from the first four issues!)

What I was actually doing was playing the statistical odds, hoping that if I looked often enough the missing issues would come to light. But it was a slow business. I started to wonder if there was any other way. Where did the stall-holders obtain their stock? Was there some place I didn't know about, a sort of Magazine Central Warehouse, where they topped-up their supplies? I tried to strike up a conversation with old Lil', my best source, to try and find out where she went between Saturdays, but she only muttered something about "other markets" and I was no wiser. I started to have dreams about finding a shop which had its walls lined with science fiction magazines (dreams I still have occasionally, to this very day). I was getting desperate!

Of course there were some paperbacks; Pan had done Arthur Clarke's Prelude to Space and Earthlight, and a few other titles. Panther was just getting started, having taken on this little-known American author called 'Isaac Asimov'. Market-leader was Corgi, with those tiny, green-spined editions. I used to send up for their leaflets and news releases, and eagerly anticipated the day that The Sands of Mars came out. I bought it on the way to school and had half-finished it by the time I got home. Corgi followed up with Expedition To Earth, and then Russell's Three to Conquer. They were doing one book per month, and their back-list mentioned The City and the Stars, although it was out-of-print. To my elation, however, I found a copy in the window of a particularly decrepit shop, sun-faded but intact. It was absolutely mind-blowing!

And I was also into the public library system, although our local branch library was very strict about letting 'children' into the Adult Section. They colour-coded your card to show that you were under 16, and they wouldn't let you take out an 'adult' book with a junior card. I got around this by getting my mother to register for a card, and used that, but you were still only allowed one fiction book (white card) and one non-fiction title (red card) at a time.

That library wasn't much good, anyway. I did find Starman Jones in the children's section (the only Heinlein juvenile to appear in the UK in the fifties), and J.T. McIntosh's World out of Mind, a novel which impressed me tremendously at the time, but there was very little else. However, I soon discovered that libraries in other suburbs were much better. In particular, five miles up the road was Yardley & Sheldon, which had two entire shelves full of science fiction anthologies!

'Anthology' was a new concept to me, a sort of magazine in hardcovers, and I went at them furiously. They were British editions of American titles, generally abridged (as I discovered later), and of mixed quality, but I devoured Bleiler & Dikty, Groff Conklin, August Derleth and so on (and wondered why they all seemed to have such funny names). Because I was only allowed to take out one book at a time, I used to hide others until my next visit, concealing them behind some of the gloomy racks of technical volumes which looked as if they hadn't been disturbed for years.

Until one day, shock horror, I found those two shelves had been emptied, cleared-out completely. And I hadn't read more than half of them! Stunned, I asked the woman at the desk what had happened.

illo by Alan Hutchinson "They're out of date," she said severely, "they've been withdrawn from circulation."

"But I wanted to read them," I protested, making no impression on her whatsoever. "If they've been withdrawn, couldn't I buy them?"

"Of course not!" she replied, affronted. "They have to be burnt."

She was only following the rules, of course, and it was not until some years later that public libraries abandoned this system and started to sell-off unwanted stock, something I'd have thought would have been an obvious thing to do from the start. They didn't give you much encouragement, in those days!

However, by this time I'd got stuck into the reader's departments of the magazines. There were no letter columns, of course, but Astounding did have Schuyler Miller's excellent book reviews in "The Reference Library," and I used to drool over those American books which were not available in Britain. In particular, I liked the look of the new paperback publisher, Ballantine Books, and their excellent list, titles like Brain Wave, Search the Sky, and The Human Angle.

And so I wrote a letter, addressed to "Ballantine Books, New York" asking if I could buy their books by post. They replied, bless them, by air-mail with a super fold-out catalogue of science fiction titles, all at 35¢ each. I carefully selected six, which was about all I could afford, added on postage, and calculated that I needed to send $2.75 in payment. This was about £1-2-0d in old money. How to do it? I went along to the local Post Office, and asked about an International Money Order. They looked doubtful. "You'll need a Permit," they said, "so fill in this form."

The form wanted all sorts of information about my age, address, occupation, (and for all I remember, shoe size), with an ominous section headed, 'Reason for Requiring Order'. I wrote innocently "to buy science fiction books" and handed it in to the counter.

"Right," they said, "we'll have to send this off to London for permission. You should hear from the Ministry in about two weeks."

This now reads like a case of bureaucracy gone mad. However, the rationale was that after the war, Britain was extremely hard-up and the government wanted to stop money going out of the country. So anyone who wanted to buy something from overseas had to have a jolly good reason. This is why American books couldn't be imported, and magazines like Galaxy and Astounding had to be reprinted in this country. (Although I never understood why the cover artwork had to be completely repainted!) Apparently "buying science fiction books" was a good enough reason, because my permit form came back, duly signed and stamped, and I took it back to the Post Office, bought my money order and sent it off with great excitement.

Good old Ballantine! They must have felt sorry for this poor kid in England, because they rushed my order by air-mail. A treasure chest of science fiction, all with superb Richard Powers covers. There was Far And Away from Anthony Boucher; Caviar, by Theodore Sturgeon; Fallen Star by James Blish; Man of Earth by Algis Budrys, and best of all, two collections from Arthur C. Clarke, Reach For Tomorrow and Tales from the White Hart. I still have most of them to this day.

However I ground my teeth in frustration at the Doubleday Science Fiction Book Club, which advertised "Take Any Three for a Dollar!" on magazine back-covers, showing huge, hardcover books like the Foundation trilogy and Treasury of Science Fiction. But in the small print it said "Good for USA and Canada only," and they meant it! Begging letters were to no avail. "Copyright reasons" they replied politely, "preclude us from accepting foreign members." No way for me to get my hands on American hardbacks; or was there?

In "The Reference Library" I'd read about a scheme called 'Pick-A-Book', operated by Martin Greenberg from an address in Hicksville, New York. "Write for free illustrated catalogue," they said, so I did, thoughtfully enclosing some American stamps for return postage. Good old Marty Greenberg sent a fabulous catalogue, crammed full of wonderful titles from Gnome Press, Fantasy Press, and Avalon. "Any three titles for $4.00," was the offer, which was just too good to refuse. I selected my three books (The Seedling Stars; Earthman's Burden; and the Fantasy Press edition of Deep Space), applied for a permit, sent off the money order and waited -- this time for a couple of months -- until the parcel arrived. Success!

But, in all this activity, I'd somehow missed the plot. How on earth did I fail to notice the existence of science fiction fandom for so long? True, the BREs were pretty well eviscerated; I subsequently found that in the U.S. Astounding "The Reference Library" usually consisted of quite a long preamble before the reviews, with quite a few mentions of World Conventions, SF Times, and so on. Not so with our reprint editions, where the book review column was obviously looked upon as expendable, boilerplate to be trimmed to size, with almost all references to SF fan activities ruthlessly expunged.

Even so, the British Nebula did carry Walt Willis' "Fanorama" column, and I'm pretty sure it would also have run the occasional advertisement for Ken Slater's 'Fantast' dealership. How could I have failed to investigate them? By ignoring New Worlds I'd missed reference to the nascent BSFA (begun in 1958), and worst of all, I didn't know about 'Brumcon', which took place in the Imperial Hotel, in Birmingham city centre over Easter weekend, 1959!

Just think of it; while I was hanging around the market stalls, a whole convention was taking place no more than a quarter-mile away. With professional writers, like Ted Tubb, James White and Ken Bulmer, dealers, and more books and magazines than I'd ever seen in my life at that time! This was the con at which Ken Cheslin and Dave Hale got started, and subsequently began their local group in Stourbridge, not too far away from me. I could have been in there with them, in time for Inchmery fandom and Aporreta, and the golden years of Hyphen, Oopsla! and Void.

Instead of messing around with permits and Pick-A-Book, I could have gone straight onto Ken Slater's mailing list. I was ready for fandom, straining at the leash, but just didn't find the right door! It was not until the beginning of 1963 that I came across the famous little pink slip in one of those Rag Market acquisitions, "Are you interested in science fiction?" it began. "Join the Erdington SF Circle."

At last I had made Contact, four years late.

All illustrations by Alan Hutchinson

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