Fandom's Effect on Society

A Brief Introduction to Science Fiction and Fanzines

Science fiction embodies any fictionally inspired work that carries a theme referencing futuristic, scientifically technological, fantastic, or otherwise alien or otherworldly content.[1] The earliest science fiction literature can be traced back to the works of Jules Verns in the 1870’s, namely Journey to the Center of the Earth and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. H.G. Wells is another notable early sci-fi author, known for The Invisible Man and The War of the Worlds.

Fans of these works went on to create sci-fi pulp magazines in the early 20th’s century, hastily compiled and illustrated works that delivered sci-fi tales on a monthly basis. The most popular of these pulps, Amazing Stories, inspired fans to correspond with each other. This correspondence led to the formation of the first formalized fan clubs, the origin of organized fandom, and the emergence of fanzines.[2] 

Fanzines can be defined as “noncommercial, nonprofessional, small-circulation magazines which their creators produce, publish, and distribute themselves.”[3] The actual content of the fanzines consisted of original short stories, reviews, editorials, and essays discussing newly released Sci-Fi novels and pulps.[4]

The Nature of Early Science Fiction Fandom

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Forrest J. Ackerman, 1972

Members of fandoms are inherently obsessive, they live and breathe the details of the subject of which they are fans. In the 1930’s, one of the only ways to discuss science fiction with multiple people without writing and sending a letter to every single person was to publish a fanzine. Fanzines were amateurish in comparison to pulp magazines, but still capable of fostering thoughtful discussion.

The science fiction fandom was a tight knit community, the same names often appeared in multiple fanzines. One instance of this comradery was when Forrest J. Ackerman, contributor to a wide variety of zines and later a prominent American magazine editor and literary agent, addressed an open a letter to all British science fiction fans during WWII stating that he felt sympathy for the hardships they were facing, and that he would provide British fans with all future copies of the zines he worked on free of charge until the end of the war.[5]

As with most communities, there were a wide array of conflicts that took place, some of these conflicts became quite heated, but the science fiction fandom was always open to discussion on practically any topic and welcomed new members with open arms.

Science Fiction and Social Commentary

In science fiction, futuristic of technological advancement are to be expected, but it was often the case that ideas of drastic societal change were also present. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, published in 1932, is an early example of this duality. Scientific advancement was often associated with a positive outlook in regards to societal advancement, as had been believed ever since Sir Thomas More created the concept of a utopia in 1516.[6] Huxley was one of the first to make the opposite correlation, showing that advanced surveillance and suppression could very easily give rise to authoritarian states. It may be the case that Huxley was the beginning of more serious discussions in science fiction.

The most prominent political conflict within the science fiction fandom prior to the start of WWII was perhaps the “Michelism” movement. At the third convention organized by FAPA, the agreed upon goal of the convention was not to tackle any glaring issues that were in the field of fandom, but to simply meet and talk with other kindred spirits, which was very unusual at the time. The convention was going smoothly and achieving exactly that, until a panel began which was hosted by Donald A. Wollheim and John B. Michel, co-founders of FAPA. Michel had prepared a speech, but it was delivered by Wollheim as Michel possessed a speech impediment that he felt made him difficult to understand.[7]

Sam Moskowitz, a prominent member of FAPA, summarizes the speech as such, “The opinion of Wollheim [was] that science fiction had got nowhere, that it was in a hopeless rut, that it had neither aim nor purpose. Those present were told that although they possessed imagination and ability superior to that of the average man, they were satisfied to do little with it. Simply discussing science fiction was a senseless routine. Science fiction must have a purpose. Science fiction must help lift humanity from the morass of stupidity in which it had become imbedded.”[8] Wollheim then explained the concept of Michelism, “the belief that science fiction fans should strive for the realization of the scientific-socialist world state.”[9] The audience, taken aback, identified the solution Michel and Wollheim provided to 'give science fiction purpose' as blatant communism.

Science VS. Fiction

One of the earliest cultural conflicts within the fandom was the debate about to what extent should science be emphasized within a science fiction story. The Science Correspondence Club, one of the first fan clubs, emphasized that they only used fiction as a background to discuss scientific theories. This club’s motto was “the aim of every fan should not be a collection of fantastic fiction, but a home laboratory where fictional dreams might attain reality.”[11] However, David Hartwell, an influential editor for many science fiction and fantasy novels from the 1970’s up until his death in 2016, once said “science fiction’s appeal lies in combination of the rational, the believable, with the miraculous. It is an appeal to the sense of wonder.”[12] Subsequent fan clubs would grow increasingly focused on that sense of wonder, pursuing fantastical ideas and ideals while using science as a background to discuss those rather than the other way around.

A decisive force within this conflict was Hugo Gernsback’s announcement of the Science Fiction League in 1934. Gernsback stated that he founded the SFL as “a non-commercial organization for the furtherance and betterment of the art of science fiction.”[13] The key word in Gernsback’s statement is 'art'; he had made the decision to focus on the cultural merit of science fiction rather than its merit as a tool to pose new theories. That is not to say that science fiction cannot eventually become science fact, but it is apparent that the ramifications of this decision would ripple throughout history.

One such ripple can be observed within the fanzines The Fantasy Fan and Science Fiction Digest[a]. Charles Hornig, The editor of The Fantasy Fan, previous contributor to Science Fiction Digest, and later a contributor to Imagination!, explicitly stated that it was not his intent to compete with Science Fiction Digest.[14] Hornig’s statement was genuine, but that would not stop the subscribers of each zine from expressing their vitriol for one another due to their opposing ideologies. The Fantasy Fan featured far greater amounts of original short stories than other zines, with its most notable contributor being H.P. Lovecraft. Gernsback was so impressed by Hornig’s work that he would later hire him as his own editor.[15]

It seemed apparent that storytelling would triumph over theorycrafting when Science Fiction Digest went under in late 1934. However, despite having the support of Gernsback and a dedicated fanbase, The Fantasy Fan ran out of funding after its 18th issue in February 1935.[16] Future zines would begin the debate anew several times over.

[a] There were several zines published between 1920 and 1980 titled Science Fiction Digest, this zine is not the same Science Fiction Digest that merged with Cosmag.

The Evolution of Fandom

Many notable science fiction authors, such as Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov, began as writers for fanzines before writing their own novels. Something to be noted about these particular authors is the difference in the types of the stories they have written.

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Ray Bradbury, 1975

Some of Bradbury’s first works were published in the zine, Imagination!. He mainly provided reviews and cover artwork but would occasionally contribute a short story or essay. One of Bradbury’s stories was titled Hollerbochen’s Dilemma and was published in the January 1938 issue of Imagination!. It was almost universally panned in fan letters published in subsequent issues for attempting to force a scientific explanation into the conflict, but missing the mark completely.[17] Bradbury himself described his approach to science fiction in his essay titled How To Become A Sci-Fic Fan, in which he states “Everyone, at one time or another, finds it convenient to toss aside the cares of the world to delve into the supernatural or scientific side of nature.”[18] He then goes on to vividly describe the degree to which science fiction provides him an escape from his daily life, making it quite clear he is more interested in the fictional aspect of science fiction.

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Isaac Asimov, 1959

Asimov on the other hand, was quite focused on the scientific aspect of science fiction. Some of Asimov’s earliest stories, Stowaway and Marooned Off Vesta paid careful attention to the physics that would be involved in space travel and interplanetary exploration. Asimov’s stories were rejected several times by popular pulps such as Astounding Science Fiction and Amazing Stories, but he was eventually accepted by both, becoming well-known enough to sell his stories solely based on the fact that he authored them rather than the stories’ content. Asimov would later go on to become a professor of biochemistry and write non-fiction works such as Guide to Science and Understanding Physics, demonstrating his dedication to the field.[19]

Soft science fiction, focusing more on character and speculative social changes, and hard science fiction, focusing more on speculative science and engineering advancements, are quite distinct from one another.[20] In the case of Bradbury and Asimov, it can be observed that each author retained their respective styles well into their careers. Fahrenheit 451 uses science fiction as a background to portray a dystopian future where censorship is rampant, and the population is ignorant to the state of the world due to the government’s control over the spread of knowledge. Bradbury never once explains how the government achieves this or how the technology was developed, he merely discusses what would result from its use. On the other hand, I, Robot delves deep into the inner workings of robots, Asimov even coined the term 'robotics.'[21] His three laws of robotics would go on to become the basis for a field which wouldn’t exist for at least a few more decades.

However, this distinction does not make it any less true that both styles allow for a meaningful message to be conveyed under the cloak of science fiction. Modern works of hard science fiction, such as the The Martian and Interstellar are seen as on par with modern works of soft science fiction, such as Star Wars and Star Trek. Science fiction fandom has not only grown to accept this, but it has grown into an entity of its own as well.

The social commentary that started in zines has since evolved into activism through online forums, panels and demonstrations at conventions, and forward-thinking choices made by novelists and movie directors. While the debate of whether science fiction should be at the forefront of this matter rages on, it is evident that science fiction and progressivism have become-- and will remain-- intertwined with one another.

[1] Amy McGarrahan and Nicole Smith. “Science Fiction Pulps and Fanzines.” Science Fiction Pulps and Fanzines, https://library.umbc.edu/speccoll/scifi/. Accessed June 11, 2018.

[2] “Science Fiction League.” Fancyclopedia, Last modified January 10, 2018, http://fancyclopedia.org/science-fiction-league. Accessed June 11, 2018.

[3] Joe Flaherty, “The Amazing Zines That Kicked Off Geek Fandom.” Wired, Last modified February 11, 2015, https://www.wired.com/2015/02/amazing-zines-kicked-geek-fandom/. Accessed June 11, 2018.

[4] Stephen Duncombe. Notes from Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture. Microcosm, 1997. p. 6.

[5] Forrest J. Ackerman, Open Letter to Anglofans

[6] Germain P. Marc'hadour, “Thomas More.” Encyclopædia Britannica, November 22, 2017, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Thomas-More-English-humanist-and-statesman. Accessed June 18, 2018.

[7] Sam Moskowitz. The immortal storm: a history of science fiction fandom. (Atlanta: Atlanta Science Fiction Organization Press, 1954) p. 118-120

[8] ibid.

[9] T. Bruce Yerke, “A Reply to Michelism.” Imagination!, Vol. 1 No. 7. April 1938. p. 7.

[10] Sam Moskowitz. The immortal storm: a history of science fiction fandom. (Atlanta: Atlanta Science Fiction Organization Press, 1954) p. 118-120.

[11] Sam Moskowitz. The immortal storm: a history of science fiction fandom. (Atlanta: Atlanta Science Fiction Organization Press, 1954), p. 8.

[12] David Hartwell. Age of Wonders: Exploring the World of Science Fiction. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1985), p. 42.

[13] Sam Moskowitz. The immortal storm: a history of science fiction fandom. (Atlanta: Atlanta Science Fiction Organization Press, 1954), p. 32.

[14] Charles D. Hornig. The Fantasy Fan. (New Jersey, September 1933). Vol. 1, No. 1. p. 1.

[15] Sam Moskowitz. The immortal storm: a history of science fiction fandom. (Atlanta: Atlanta Science Fiction Organization Press, 1954), p. 18-19.

[16] Charles D. Hornig. The Fantasy Fan. (New Jersey, February 1935) Vol. 2, No. 6. p. 81, p. 96.

[17] Forrest J. Ackerman and T. Bruce Yerke, eds., Imagination!. (Los Angeles: Los Angeles Science Fiction League, 1937-1938)

[18] Ray Bradbury. “How To Become A Sci-Fic Fan.” Imagination!, Vol. 1 No. 9. June 1938. p. 12.

[19] “Isaac Asimov Biography.” The Biography.com website, Last modified April 2, 2014, https://www.biography.com/people/isaac-asimov-9190737. Accessed June 18, 2018.

[20] Bruce Sterling, “Science fiction.” Encyclopædia Britannica, January 18, 2018, https://www.britannica.com/art/science-fiction/Soviet-science-fiction. Accessed June 20, 2018.

[21] JP, “Fathers of Robotics: Isaac Asimov.” Robot Shop, Last modified June 29, 2017. https://www.robotshop.com/blog/en/fathers-of-robotics-isaac-asimov-20668. Accessed June 20, 2018.

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Fandom's Effect on Society