Paraphernalia: Where the Ether Vibrates

By Mark Plummer

A general sense of solidarity obliges me to note that the recently resurrected online incarnation of Amazing Stories features a similarly resurrected fan column, “The Clubhouse.” That means there are now two fan columns appearing in SF magazines, so I think we must be in the 1960s. Guitar groups are on the way out, but this Telstar satellite has potential, and there’s a bit of a buzz about a new TV show called Doctor Who. Hint to the BBC: just a hunch, but I reckon it’s worth keeping the recordings, just in case it takes off. One never knows, does one?

Many older fans have described encountering fandom through the fan columns that appeared in the prozines of the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies. Walter Willis’s “The Electric Fan” and “Fanorama” in Nebula, Lin Carter’s “Our Man in Fandom” in If, Robert Bloch’s and Mari Wolf’s “Fandora’s Box” in Imagination . . . they all made converts, enticing impressionable young fans to send off some “sticky quarters” for copies of the fanzines reviewed and discussed within their pages, and giving them the excuse to later write about their eye-opening experience for other fanzines as a worked example of perpetual motion. It’s just unfortunate that, by the very nature of the process, we don’t really have the equivalent legends of the proto-fans who duly received the fanzines they’d requested and found, rather than the anticipated insightful analysis of the stories of Pauline Ashwell and G. Peyton Wertenbaker, none-too-well-duplicated pages full of rambling anecdotes and jargon-filled chatter, as a result of which they gave the whole scene up as a bad job in favour of some more rewarding pastime like collecting used postage stamps, bus tickets, or string.

On the face of it, then, it seems to have been an effective outreach programme. Leah Zeldes is the current custodian of “The Clubhouse”—over the years it’s used both the one- and two-word forms, and at the moment it’s in one of its closed-up phases—and in her first column she explains how her own introduction to fandom came from a 1973 version of “The Clubhouse” written by John D. Berry. She wrote to Ted White, the editor of Amazing, and he later used her letter as the basis for an editorial. And who knows, maybe there’s a fan out there who was activated by that in turn.

Leah is something of an expert on these fannish “first contact” stories, having co-edited with Dick Smith a collection called Contact! for the 2001 Ditto convention in which seventy-two fans, from Forrest J. Ackerman to Joel Zakem (alphabetically) and Lisa Freitag and Deb Geisler (chronologically)—Forry comes first either way—explain how they found fandom. The SF magazines loom large. With Ackerman it was through the letter column of the first issue of Science Wonder Quarterly in 1929. For British fan veteran Terry Jeeves it was an advertisement in a 1937 issue of Tales of Wonder. For John Foyster in Australia it was the thirteenth issue of the Scottish magazine Nebula with one of those previously mentioned fan columns by Walt Willis. Many of the later discoveries, especially from the Seventies onwards, are more about meeting existing fans, and attending clubs or conventions, but it’s clear that throughout at least the first few decades of fandom’s history, magazines played a significant part in the induction process.

I’ve often felt a little . . . umm, I’m not sure that “deprived” is quite the word, but I do at least have a mild sense of regret that I don’t have one of these classic fannish magazine first contact stories myself, that moment of piqued curiosity or recognition of community that arose from reading a review, a listing, or an advertisement that provided the revelation or at least the implication that there was something out there. The reality is that I’m in what I assume is the slightly odd position of finding my way to science fiction magazines through fandom rather than the other way around.

In 1987 I went to Conspiracy, the World Science Fiction Convention in Brighton. Given that British Worldcons are usually a once-a-decade manifestation, I suppose I was thus reasonably fortunate: pretty much the first Worldcon I had any interest in attending happened to be almost literally just down the road rather than in some unimaginably remote location such as Chicago, Denver, or Melbourne.

I should say that I wasn’t uninterested in the subject matter of the event, but neither was I a hardcore SF enthusiast at that point. I went to the Worldcon because a number of my friends were going, and it sounded like fun. And so I went to the Hugo presentation as it was one of the keynote events, the headline act as it were, and yet I was for the most part watching as a series of awards were presented to people and works that were, at best, names. Even some of the categories were a little opaque. I mean, yes, it’s not difficult to come up with a reasonable idea of what a “novella” and a “novelette” might be, but they were hardly common terms in everyday language.

And the sources of these works were similarly mysterious, because along with most people in the 1980s, I imagine, I didn’t really think of magazines as a home of fiction. I’d read collections and anthologies, obviously, and even their copyright notices that explained the venues in which the stories had first appeared, but this detail had made little real impression. The Hugo shortlists for 1987 revealed stories published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, and Analog, provoking me for the first time to consider what that implied, and I think I envisaged publications akin to SFX: glossy and large format, with lots of pictures, primarily nonfiction content with the odd story or two.

You would be entitled to wonder why I did not take the opportunity afforded by the Worldcon and its extensive dealers’ room to satisfy this newfound curiosity about science fiction magazines, but it was only some months later that I stirred myself to buy a copy of a small and frankly unprepossessing digest which was hiding amongst all the colourful larger publications for collectors of used postage stamps, bus tickets, and string that filled the shelves of chain newsagents WHSmith at London’s Victoria Station. That was the June 1988 issue of Analog, and from July I started buying F&SF and Asimov’s too, thus beginning a collection that would ultimately occupy about forty linear feet of shelves with these and other titles, current and back issues, all traceable back to a vague curiosity over a quarter of a century ago about what a novelette was and where one might come from.

It may not be a true fannish first contact story, although maybe it’s a second or third contact story and there aren’t so many of those, just as there aren’t all that many missed contact stories, at least that we ever got to hear about. And it does lead me to a recently published book.

The title Benchmarks Continued: F&SF “Books” Columns 1975–1982 by Algis Budrys pretty much sets out the scope of the work. While Budrys was a professional writer and F&SF was and is a professional magazine, I think the book comes within my remit here as it is essentially a fan publication, and very much part of a tradition for such collections extending back over half a century. In 1956 a group of Chicago fans formed Advent: Publishers, initially to publish In Search of Wonder, a similar collection of magazine columns by Damon Knight, which they followed with a series of critical and historical works by James Blish, Alexei Panshin, and Alva Rogers, among others. A more recent example of such a venture comes from the UK where Beccon Publications, a one-man operation run by UK fan Roger Robinson, has produced critical collections by John Clute, Gary K. Wolfe, and Paul Kincaid.

Benchmarks Continued is published by Ansible Editions, which currently consists of Dave Langford and Greg Pickersgill. The columns collected here predate my own discovery of F&SF by several years, but it’s only the first of three projected volumes as Budrys was a regular columnist with the magazine until 1993. I felt at the time—well, in 1988 and after—that this was very much the kind of writing about books that could be enjoyed purely for its own sake, and that’s still true, although when it’s collected as here, it also presents a pretty good snapshot of the era where C. J. Cherryh, Joe Haldeman, and George R. R. Martin are amongst the emerging talents, where you get an as-it-happens contemporary reaction to the four volumes of The Book of the New Sun, and where somebody might say that “this book will still be around, and referred to among us, years from now” when talking about The Pleasure Tube by Robert Onopa (1979).

Many modern science fiction magazines put their content online, which I’m sure most of us welcome. It’s even a natural medium for the new Amazing Stories, a title that for many still invokes a confetti shower of pulp flakes and virtually demands the prefix “venerable.” But I think it’s good that amongst all this new content there are a few people who are prepared to take advantage of the new refinements to traditional media and make the effort to re-present some of the interesting and valuable material that’s been locked in the hard-to-find print pages of the publications that predate the Internet, especially the nonfiction that doesn’t attract the attention of the commercial publishers. Really, these are pretty exciting times. I have this strange sense—and I’ve no idea where this has come from, although I can’t help thinking that there’s something not quite right about the gender politics—that we should commit ourselves to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth.


Mark Plummer is mildly relieved that, for all the historical continuity it would imply, he did not entitle this series of columns “Parafanalia.”

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