- Historic Sites
September/October 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 6
The central fact about the science-fiction community, writers and readers alike, was that it was a family. The members shared interests and outlooks that the rest of the world disdained. They thought in terms of science and the future, and when they weren’t reading or writing about those things, what they wanted most was to talk about them. In so doing, they gave birth to that unique cultural phenomenon, science-fiction “fandom.”
It is very difficult to explain science-fiction fandom to anyone who has never experienced it. The closest analogy, perhaps, might be to the “cellar Christians” of pagan Rome, small, furtive groups of believers, meeting in secret, shunned or even attacked by outsiders or, as fans came to call them, the “mundanes.”
The entry into fandom was greatly aided by living in a large city in that neolithic stage of the science-fiction society. With a million or more human beings within easy commuting range, it wasn’t hard to find a few who shared almost any oddball interest. It was harder for those who lived in small towns or no towns at all, like Jack Williamson in sparsely populated New Mexico. He discovered science fiction earlier, by sending away for a free sample of one of the magazines. He was an instant convert. “My imagination was overwhelmed,” he says. “I raised two dollars for a subscription, devoured the stories—such adventures into the unknown as A. Merritt’s The Moon Pool’—and started writing my own. My world had suddenly expanded. It had been pretty much just the farm and ranch, the country school, and the county seat thirty miles away. Suddenly it included the whole universe of science and the imagination, future as well as present. In a sense, I became a citizen of the cosmos.”
I don’t know where that magazine came from, but when I read it I was hooked forever.
In my part of the world—New York City—that science-fiction cosmos was more densely inhabited. My own first experience with organized fandom came when one of the magazines, Wonder Stories, launched a correspondence club called the Science Fiction League (or SFL—fans love initials) in an effort to boost its failing circulation. I joined at once, of course, hoping to find correspondents to exchange letters with; I got more than I had dreamed of when the SFL chartered local chapters. The first of them was in Brooklyn, New York, and I begged my parents’ permission to stay out late enough one night to attend its first meeting.
It was held in the cellar of a semidetached house in one of Brooklyn’s bedroom communities, the home of a young man named George Gordon Clark, who had a signal distinction. Not only was Clark’s Brooklyn Science Fiction League officially numbered Chapter No. 1 of the SFL, but Clark’s postage stamp had beaten out all the others who sent in their membership applications, so that he became Member No. 1. As Member No. 490 I could only envy him. Six or eight fans showed up for that meeting; Clark, in his early twenties, was the oldest of us, and I was close to the youngest. We admired Clark’s collection. We talked about drawing up a constitution and by-laws for the chapter (next to Amazing Stories and the other magazines, our favorite reading was Robert’s Rules of Order). And then we retired to a nearby soda fountain for ice-cream sodas. It wasn’t the meetings themselves that drew us together. It was the “meetings after the meetings”—ritual affairs, never neglected—when we would sit for an hour or two and talk.
All over the country—and in most of the English-speaking world, though in smaller numbers— people just like us were doing just what we were doing. Fan clubs sprang up in England, Canada, and Australia as well as most of the larger cities in the United States. Fans spent their time corresponding with other fans and writing for and publishing their own fan magazines (later renamed fanzines). Few fans had any spare money, so the fan magazines were not elaborate. They were generally mimeographed, sometimes hectographed (a process that involved laying single sheets of paper down on a sticky jelly master, always producing purple stains on the fingers from the ink). It was not uncommon for the circulation of a fan magazine to be fifteen or twenty, or sometimes only in single digits. They published amateur stories, reviews of the current magazines, gossip about club activities, and essays on anything the editors thought interesting—or could persuade anyone to write for them.
None of them ever paid for their contributions, of course. Yet even in the fan magazines there were the beginnings of considerable wealth, for two fans in Cleveland, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, published a cartoon magazine about an amazing man of steel. The idea wasn’t entirely their own—they confessed to being inspired by Philip Wylie’s novel about a superstrong boy, Gladiator—but commercial interests saw what they had done, bought the rights from them for a very small number of dollars, and launched their character as a comic strip. Of course, since then that character has appeared— endlessly—in films and television and every other medium known to man, because his name was Superman.