- Historic Sites
September/October 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 6
As the young teenagers of the 1930s began to mature, fans even began to live with other fans, in communes with names like The Ivory Tower in Brooklyn and Slan Shack in the Midwest, where three or four working fans clubbed together to take an apartment that all their fan friends used as a convenient meeting place. As fans matured a little more, and as the first female fans began to show themselves in the previously monastically male fannish world, fans married fans and raised their children to be fans; there are third- and even fourth-generation fans beginning to show up these days at the “cons”—a short term for science-fiction conventions or conferences. Once science-fiction clubs existed, the science-fiction con was a natural consequence.
As it happens, I was present at the very first con of all. It was in 1936. Six or seven of us New York City fans got on a Pennsylvania Railroad train and went all the way down to Philadelphia. There we were greeted by six or seven Philadelphia fans and constituted ourselves the first-ever science-fiction convention.
We had a meeting. What we did at the meeting is lost to posterity because the secretary mislaid the minutes. (I was the secretary.) The important part was the usual meeting after the meeting, where we sat around with our ice-cream sodas until it was time to catch the return train to New York. The next con was only a few months later—in England—when some fans in Birmingham, hearing of what we had done, decided to repeat the event on British soil, and the deluge began.
By 1939 it was clearly time for something grander. New York was not just a one-fan-club city anymore; there were several rival groups, but they got together long enough to make a plan. There was to be a world’s fair in New York that year. Many tourists would be coming, and some of them no doubt would be fellow fans. So why not organize the first-ever World Science Fiction Convention for that place at that time?
And so they did, and every year since then (except for the plague years of World War II, when travel was too difficult) a World Science Fiction Convention has occurred in some city or another. The 1990 event will be in The Hague in the Netherlands. Some of the world conventions have drawn as many as nine thousand people in these latter days, and the program goes on for five days.
Science fiction first happened long before anyone thought there was such a genre.
When I first began reading science fiction there were many big-name writers, most now completely, and often deservedly, forgotten. But the biggest of all is not forgotten, for that was H. G. Wells, the father of us all.
Wells didn’t originate science fiction. That happened long before anyone thought there was such a particular genre of literature—at least as far back as Lucian of Samosata (some would even call the Book of Revelation a kind of science-fiction story)—and there were any number of sort-of science-fiction stories over the centuries; Jonathan Swift, Francis Bacon, Voltaire, and Cyrano de Bergerac are only a few of the more famous experimenters in the field. Jules Verne has a considerable claim to being the pioneer. (In fact, on the contents page of the first American science-fiction magazine, Amazing Stories, the publisher, Hugo Gernsback, printed a drawing of Verne’s tomb in Amiens as a tribute.) But Wells wrote consequential science fiction, the kind of story that did not turn out to be just a dream at the end but changed the world itself. While Gernsback was trying to find writers for the early issues of his new kind of magazine, he filled out its pages by reprinting all of Wells’s short stories in the field. He reprinted many other high-quality stories too, for the other thing about reprints was that they were cheaper than even the low rates the editors paid for originals.
The foremost American science-fiction writers of the first generation were Edgar Rice Burroughs and Ray Cummings. Burroughs’s first book was A Princess of Mars (1917), the story of an Earthman named John Carter who is magically transported to Mars. Once there, he finds himself in a semifeudal, utterly glamorous world where beautiful red-skinned (and egg-laying) Martian princesses need to be rescued from four-armed green men and giant four-armed intelligent white apes. Mars (or, as Burroughs’s imaginary natives called it, Barsoom) was a dying world —ocher plains of dead sea bottoms, thin air that needed to be constantly replenished by atmosphere factories— but Burroughs’s slam-bang adventurous writing made it come to life. In all, Burroughs wrote a dozen Barsoom novels. But early on he discovered Tarzan, and that series made him rich (with the help, of course, of some smart early speculation in Los Angeles real estate, which is why the community he lived in is now called Tarzana).
Ray Cummings was nowhere near as successful. Nevertheless, he was one of the grand old men of science fiction. He had worked with Thomas Edison, and his novels about winged warriors on Mercury and adventure in the worlds of the atom were among the most popular of the early 1930s (those were the days when even scientists thought of an atom as a miniature solar system, with hard little electrons orbiting around a giant central nucleus).