We don't normally publish articles
as long as this next one, but we couldn't resist Yugoslav fan Bruno Ogorelec's window
onto SF in Yugoslavia, past and present. We received it not more than a week before
we moved to Maryland; it's certainly the most unusual going-away present we've
- - - - - - - -
The history of American mass-market SF and the fandom thereof -- from Gernsback till today via numerous pulpy begats -- has been researched in exhaustive detail and seems to be familiar to everyone by now. The British oldpharts, sharing most of the skiffy/fannish roots with their U.S. cousins, have documented their own history just as painstakingly. They are much given to recounting how they started reading SF after bumping into a cornucopia of American pulp magazines, the lucky bastards. They were apparently imported in bulk (the pulps, that is, not the lucky bastards) and sold for a pittance to the impressionable British youngsters. No such luck for me, however, nor indeed for most of the other Continental Europeans.
Our lands have not been blessed with such manna. Locally brewed science fiction pulps have always been rarer than hen's milk here, while importing pulp magazines in a foreign language never made much sense, of course. Even the early sixties (my entry point into fandom) were more or less a barren desert. You Anglos had it easy. In the English-speaking countries there existed a mass market for SF, and fandom flourished. It is a market phenomenon, after all. Nowhere else could you find the skiffy-consuming masses for fandom to spring from. It made significant inroads into the rest of the Western world only very recently, with the advent of another mass market: media SF. Before that, non-Anglo fandom was of necessity a realm of the unusual, of people like me, or worse. It has always been sparse, its lot unsung and unresearched.
A pity, that. Most of us being oddballs, we could have furnished some lurid fan histories. It takes a peculiar bent of character to get this much involved in something you share with perhaps three or four people in your entire country and which is, moreover, virtually unobtainable.
In this vein, while we are on the subject of unusual: a few months ago in Anvil, Skel wrote of an unusual Britfan beginning -- to wit, getting his first SF book from his mother. It was a response to Buck Coulson's column in an earlier issue in which Buck had stressed the improbability of a fan's mother in the fifties having anything to do with anything as disrespectable as science fiction. Hah! Piffle! If a mother was an improbable source of SF, what about a grandmother? Or a great-grandmother? Now that is what I would call improbable.
Yes, you guessed it, of course -- therein hangs a tale. A long one; I am congenitally incapable of writing anything short and succinct:
Great Jumping Grandmothers
A Cautionary Tale of Female Emancipation
by Bruno Ogorelec
I am a scion of a venerable fannish family whose passion for SF and fantasy started at about the same time the peace accords were being hammered out at Versailles, in the aftermath of World War I. My country, Yugoslavia, had just been put together out of assorted Balkan states, nations, and territories. My family, in contrast, started going asunder. Did I say "family"? Hm, for the want of a better word, perhaps. Well, you'll see for yourself.
If I want to begin at the beginning, I must start with my great-grandmother. She discovered science fiction in 1920. It wasn't labelled "science fiction", of course, but that's what it was. An awkward person, my great-grandmother. Wish I could speak of her in a more positive light, her being the very first fan of us all, etc., but by all accounts she was a difficult woman; cold, rude, and fiercely independent.
She married halfheartedly, only because the changing social climate had made our comfortable family traditions no longer acceptable. Till then, my female ancestors never even thought of getting married. Instead, they occupied a rather peculiar niche in the contemporary order of things. This will sound weird, I know, and have to brace myself for some incredulity; our women were all illegitimate daughters of Catholic priests. When they grew up, they in turn became women-about-church and the priests' concubines -- and eventually bore the priests' illigetimate children. This is what we had in place of the conventional family. (In the XIX century, mind you.)
It may seem like a mean existence to you, but was in fact a pleasant enough life, vastly preferable to the fate of a peasant's wife, for instance. The priests -- often highly-placed church officials -- took very good care of their women and children, making sure their "families" never lacked anything. The women never had to toil for subsistence, a rare blessing in an era in which a woman's toil was a terrible burden indeed. Work around the church was undemanding and often interesting. Our women were educated far above the norm for those days, and even had access to the church libraries. Their lives were simple, easy, enlightened -- and independent, free of many stifling family strictures. No wonder none of them ever wanted anything better either for themselves or for their daughters. (For once it was the men who got the rough end of the arrangement. Sons did not fit into the scene at all, and most of them drifted away and became itinerant field hands.)
It was only my great-grandmother that broke the tradition, pressured by the increasingly secular society, but according to the family sources she did it reluctantly and later came to regret her bold move. Before her time, scoffing at a cozy role in life such as hers was rare and pointless; envy was a much more common reaction. However, with the decline of the feudal system and the rise of urban democratic society, the church lost much of its clout and prestige. The cachet of being a prelate's concubine had paled accordingly.
Great-grandma was a proud woman and didn't want to be scoffed at. She ditched the tradition, married a young railroad track inspector, and with the considerable family savings opened an inn in the country. She ran a taut ship, gave good value for money to the inn's patrons, and prospered. As a wife and mother, however, she was a failure, obviously resenting having to take care of a household and family on top of her busy inn. Great-granddad was thus happy to roam the country inspecting the railroad tracks, returning home for one weekend a month (if that much). His wife of formidable will, unsettling education, and unpleasant moods had turned out to be more than he could handle, and it was good to be out of the way most of the time.
Little Grandma, his daughter, soon realized her Daddy hadn't been a fool. She was a teenager then and, though scarcely involved in any momentous events, could clearly sense that big changes were afoot in the wide world. She was seriously rethinking her options in life. At home she was largely ignored as a person, but very much taken into account as a laborer. How could she fancy being a waitress and kitchen helper in a country inn? She didn't relish playing second fiddle to her mother's ego, either. As well educated as was the family custom, she wanted more out of life. A whole new world beckoned her from outside. So one day she simply packed her modest possessions and left for the Big City.
This is where we come back to science fiction. Among the first possessions she packed were books. Perhaps a dozen altogether, the cream of the cream of the family library. Among them were the two freshest additions and Great-grandma's favorites: The End of the World and The Last Days of Men by Camille Flammarion. Beautiful books bound in silky green fabric, with titles embossed in black and gold. I remember them so vividly -- the smooth solid things with intricate ridges of the embossing, cool and pleasant to touch, not like the modern slick book jackets that turn sticky against your palms.
They were all illustrated with superb, richly lithographs of dark, brooding character, ideally complementing Flammarion's literary images of decadence before the doom. The one I remember best depicted a rich man's living room somewhere in Paris. He is reclining on an opulent sofa and watches a huge flat circular TV screen, wall mounted in a baroque frame, with more levers sprouting from its base than from a DC-3 control panel. The screen shows a plump bejeweled belly dancer clad in silk dimi, performing before an audience of beggars and street urchins somewhere in Baghdad. Another picture, much smaller, more of a vignette, showed a cluster of badly misshapen flowers, ominous signs of the impending fall. All pictures had fitting captions, dripping with morals, but they elude me now.
Great grandmother was furious at her daughter's flight. Amazingly, it was the "theft" of books that incensed her the most. To her the books were a bit sacred, a link to her rather elevated past, and a token of her stature in the community. The only other people in the village that read books were the parish priest and the school teacher. Flammarion's disappearance pained her most acutely. She clearly loved the fantastic literature, her latest discovery, best of all. It was a genre much frowned upon by the church then and reading it was thus a small defiant gesture towards the regrettably abandoned curia. Small, because Flammarion was a religious moralist at heart. Flaunting him was at best a hedged bet. (Curiously enough, the church libraries routinely held books that were not Ideologically Sound, even while railing against them in public. But then, laymen generally did not have access to them, and the priests must have been considered immune to their corrosive influence.)
Her daughter inherited this appreciation of the fantastic, but went a step further, embracing "hard" SF as well. For her, free of any longing for the staid tradition, Jules Verne was the man to watch, writing of the brave new times and gadgets, and of men with the Right Stuff.
I have often wondered how she managed to buy books. She came to Zagreb with a small cardboard suitcase, little money, and fewer prospects for a sound and gainful employment. Luck was with her, though. She soon found a job as a printer's assistant in the big Tipografija printing plant which specialized in all kinds of office forms for the government, banks, insurance companies, etc. It was hard work and paid little, while the books were frightfully expensive. Common fold hardly ever read real books -- but then, Grandma had always considered herself a cut above common, inheriting from her mother also a dose of haughtiness. Ordinary literate people found their reading pleasure in, well, pulps. Not SF, I hasten to say, but historical romances and novels of intrigue. They were more basic than American pulps, insofar as they didn't have proper covers and weren't even bound or cut. The big printer sheet (46" x 33") was simply folded over four times to give 32 uncut pages. An illustration and a title were printed in the corner destined to end up as the front page, and that was it. You would cut the pages yourself, most often with a kitchen knife, and perhaps sew the pages together at a fold with a sewing needle and some thread. I don't think staples existed then. If there were any around they must have been out of common folk's reach.
While Grandma did prefer (and buy) books, the pulps were certainly not below notice in her household. They were purchased regularly, read carefully, and then bound together in volumes. She befriended some guys in the printing shop bindery, bribed them with beer and smiles and got proper hard bindings done. As the Tipografija works only did office supplies and thus only had relevant binding materials, Granny's bookshelf looked suspiciously like an office file cabinet, with rows of what looked like stiff cardboard file dossiers, dark gray with a pattern of dark green swirls, edged with black cloth and labelled along the spine. The labels were blank, though, and once you took a "file dossier" down from the shelf you saw the illustrated front page of the pulp romance neatly cut, glued, and pressed onto the front side. Rather like those fake-bookshelf cocktail cabinets, only in reverse.
But below the bound pulps were shelves of real books. A surprising number of them were fantasy or science fiction, considering how few had been published here at all by that time. The French had a notable presence, far bigger than they would manage (or merit) nowadays. Jules Verne led the pack, naturally, but his lead would have been even greater had Grandma ever learned the Cyrillic alphabet. Several interesting SF books had been published in Belgrade in Cyrillic, among them the first SF book ever published in these parts: Jules Verne's A Journey to the Centre of the Earth in 1873 (only six years after the Turkish army had retreated from Belgrade, freeing it after 450 years of Ottoman occupation!).
Of Wells there was only The Invisible Man; surprising in view of Granny's strong Socialist leanings. It was a 1914 edition with no illustrations, which was quite unusual for the time. Perhaps the illustrator found drawing an invisible hero too much of a challenge? The only other English title, as far as I can remember, was Bellamy's Looking Backward... No E.A. Poe, who was virtually unknown here till the fifties for some unfathomable reason. No Stapledon, either. But then, Olaf Stapledon still hasn't been published here at all...
Despite long hours and miserly pay, Grandma did manage to buy and read books and indulge in some other soul-satisfying activities, like singing. In her time off she sang in the trade union choir, and there she met my grandfather, her husband. He sang in the Print & Graphic Trades Union Choir despite being a panel beater. The contemporary repertory apparently put a heavy emphasis on lyrical tenors and Grandpa, a carouser of some repute, was also reputed to have a voice of a macho nightingale. The PGTU choirmaster had lured him away from the Machinist's Union Choir offering him God knows what, but most probably the chance to sing with girls (the MU Choir was, not surprisingly, all male). Grandpa took the opportunity with both hands. In the new crowd he soon found a good companion in my grandmother, who also liked singing, wine, and merry company, and they got happily married.
But they did not live happily ever after, alas. A sad note intrudes here. Grandma soon lost her job. She was very active in the PGTU, helped organize a big strike in the late twenties and got sacked in the Tipografija owners' reprisals. For two years the Trade Union Strike Fund paid her a weekly allowance, but with the onset of the Great Depression their coffers dried up. By that time, the daughters had arrived, three of them in quick succession, the one in the middle being my mother. Grandpa fell ill, suddenly. A stomach cancer was diagnosed; very soon he withered away and died.
But the women in my family have titanium-alloy backbones. They know not defeat.
The legend has it that one day, as Grandpa lay ill on a cot in the kitchen -- to be at Grandma's hand in case he needed anything -- the taxman came to the door to collect long-overdue taxes. He'd come armed with a court order empowering him to seize moveable property in case the tax debt could not be collected in cash or financial paper. Grandma herself used to recount the thunderous encounter with some relish, cackling gleefully. When the appeals failed to soften the taxman's resolve, she went over to the woodshed and returned with a huge axe, a mean four-foot mother she could barely raise with both hands, and offered to split his skull if he dared to cross the threshold. The funny and mysterious thing is that, after beating a hasty retreat, he never came back, ever. Grandma has always maintained that she never paid those back taxes, and that nobody has ever tried to collect them again.
If she was capable of putting the fear of God into the Municipal Revenue Services, she certainly wasn't going to be fazed by life's minor knocks, so she somehow raised her three daughters single-handedly, despite the highly irregular income, and by my mother's words, she did it with flair and in style. The girls were fine-mannered and always well-dressed. Grandma had even offered them good education, but all three stopped after high school and found jobs instead.
For some reason only my mother inherited the literary interests of her idiosyncratic mother and grandmother, but that was enough to keep the tradition. When she married and went to live with my father, she started a SF library of her own and now has a sizeable collection, including, I think, all SF books published in the Croatian/Serbian language after the war. She has always felt that by embracing science fiction, she took over a family trust that had been kept and nurtured over the generations. She still has this sense of mission, almost, and could never really understand her sisters' total lack of interest. How could anyone fail to see the innate conceptual beauty of science fiction was beyond her powers of comprehension.
This is the environment I grew up in, you see.
Funnily enough, the tradition has always been handed down from mother to daughter, no men in my family ever having the slightest interest in SF. Great-granddad never read anything at all, excepting the Agramer Tagblatt, the leading Zagreb German-language daily paper in its day. Grandfather, in turn, respected his wife's tastes but preferred the French classics and, surprisingly, Grandma's bound pulp romances. My father, a physicist of international repute, hates science fiction.
So there it was -- the beginning of the sixties, the Hula Hoop craze had already subsided, Rock'n'Roll had started its conquest of the Balkans, and there was still no female offspring in sight to take the tradition over. Bene Gesserit were getting worried. Was the work and dedication of generations destined to turn into dust, with no one to carry the torch? Grandma, distracted by life's calamities, had managed to instill the True Faith in just one of her three daughters and that one, perversely, bore her a grandson, not a granddaughter. Useless. You couldn't make a man into a Truthsayer. Family history had by that time proved conclusively that men simply did not take to science fiction. The other two daughters did have female offspring but the young girls couldn't be bothered to peruse the comics, much less read the weightier stuff like Heinlein's juveniles or Isaac Asimov. To all appearances it was a dead end.
But appearances can be deceiving, you know.
It was a fine summer day in Zagreb. Mother was cooking dinner, her son destroying the last of the cherry pie, browsing through some old issues of Savremena Tehnika (a kind of local Popular Mechanics), and all was well with the world.
"Mom!" the boy called out. "How does a mountain open?"
"How does a mountain open?"
"Hm. Well, it doesn't, usually."
"Yes, it does. It says so here. Listen: 'When it looked as if our flying machine would crash straight into the mountainside, the huge rock face simply split apart. The entire mountain opened along a vertical seam. Full speed ahead, we flew through the opening and into a giant brightly-lit cavern cut into the rock. Already the mountain was closing back behind us like a clamshell, cutting us off from the red desert and orange sky. We were inside Mars!'"
Mom dropped her pots and pans in shock, her face blanched. She couldn't believe her ears. With the tympans pounding Richard Strauss' "Zarathustra" in her mind she ran over to the boy and looked at the magazine in his hands. Aye, there it was, verily, the third installment of Among the Martians, a short novel by Hugo Gernsback.
A curious sound escaped her lips, neither a shout nor a whisper. To the boy it sounded like a name, a man's name in some strange and exotic language: Kwisatz Haderach! But it could have been just a sneeze.
At any rate, the boy took to science fiction like a duck to the water, to the disbelief of the women. He thrived on the skiffy diet, growing and growing in stature and fannishness over the years, finally to become me as I am today, a worthy successor to the science fiction witch coven. Unexpectedly, I even found the place that no Truthsayer could see into. It was said that "... a man would come one day and find ... his inward eye, and that he would look where Truthsayers before him couldn't."
I found that place in the English language.
Before me, no one in the family ever learned English; German and Hungarian were our foreign languages of choice. All foreign science fiction we read had been translated. Roughly a third of it was Russian, another third French, and the rest Angloamerican. The others were truly rare. The rarest of all were the Yugoslav authors, a mere dozen or so. It was a fine, if limited, choice. To an American fan it would be quite unfamiliar, the Russian part in particular. More's the pity.
I liked the Russian stuff pretty much most of the time. Alexander Belyayev used to be a favorite, the grand old man of Russian SF, bound to the wheelchair by polio and compensating for the sedentary destiny in a spectacular manner, inventing very lifelike and convincing heroes: amphibious men, flying men, and mad scientists. To me, the fondest of his creations, however, is a certain young lady from "The Head of Professor Dowell", written in the late forties. The said professor had an unusual dream: to salvage from crash victims what body parts were in viable condition, and recycle them. Out of the remains of two or three deaders he would cobble together one live one, reducing thereby the traffic fatalities tally by thirty to fifty percent -- a noble aim in the forties, surely. Totally impractical now, of course, what with the current cost of malpractice insurance and all. Anyway, he kept the heads potted, somewhat like petunias, in the basement lab and fed them hydroponically. One head used to belong to a lovely, shy, fragile blonde. Very conveniently, along comes a delectable corpse of a hot-blooded bar singer, shot through the forehead by a jealous lover. The voluptuous body is mated to the elfin head, and the results are hilarious as the worldly body clashes with a shy and innocent mind. A good book.
Modern Angloamerican science fiction was represented by Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, and hardly anyone else. The others appeared haphazardly, by accident more than by design. We had no reason to suppose that Angloamerican SF was more plentiful than French SF. It was more exciting, true, but contemporary Russian SF often matched it in excitement and was usually better written. Of the Americans we knew, only Bradbury could write but his SF was wooly and poetic, which was counted against him. Way back then we still expected science fiction to have some hair on its chest.
Ahem. Where was I? Ah, yes; the English language. I learned it as a lark, mostly. Some of my friends collected stamps, the others made model aeroplanes, and I collected feelthy peekchers and studied English. Frankly, it wasn't of much practical use to me. The English language, I mean. Rock lyrics have always been unintelligible, even to the native English speakers. Movies were (and still are, thank God) subtitled. What else was there?
Well, in time I found the British motoring magazines. Ah, the Autocar, for example! The patrician among the peasants. I didn't understand much at first, but it doesn't take you too long to learn such pearly perfect syntagms 'The Double Overhead Camshaft' or 'Desmodromic Valve Actuation'. Pure poetry in steel and Valvoline. Gradually I soaked up enough of a vocabulary to read and understand most of the articles. I even learned that you didn't say "bonnet" or "boot" to an American, but "hood" and "trunk" instead, and that the tyres and tires were one and the same thing.
And then, inevitably, I bumped into science fiction.
By the mid-sixties I had read virtually every single SF book available in Croatian/Serbian and was down to the misfiles -- you know, the books with promising but misleading titles (like Jack London's Moon Valley) or non-SF books by SF authors. Logic said that there must have been some misfiles in the opposite direction as well, science fiction that did not look like science fiction. I started fine-combing the entire stock of a big public library to find them, and Bingo! found one in the very first try. It was From Lucianus to Lunik by Darko Suvin, filed -- not entirely unexpectedly -- under "Literary Theory". It actually was literary theory, a hefty volume explaining science fiction, that they snubbed it out of prejudice, not out of knowledge. So, to illustrate the points he made, he had included a dozen SF stories in a kind of appendix. I opened the book at the appendix and was hooked from the start. In the first entry even the author's name dripped with the sense of wonder -- Cordwainer Smith! The story was "Scanners Live in Vain" and it hit me like a sledgehammer.
The book's theoretical part was no less fascinating. It traced the history of fantastic literature all the way back to the ancients, and analyzed its content to show the reasons for its enduring importance in the human culture. Somehow I have always felt science fiction to be more important than its surface showed, but could never quite frame the right arguments. All of a sudden there was that professor in Zagreb who understood.
He opened my eyes in yet another respect, teaching me that somewhere out there, there existed an incredibly vast mountain of science fiction in English, of which I had never even dreamt. That all the SF I had read till then was but an anthill compared to the Himalayas. My mother also read Suvin's book and was nonplussed. She liked the stories a lot (Heinlein's "Misfit" being her favorite) but hated the idea of thousands of such stories, out of reach because of the language barrier. She felt betrayed.
I felt feverish. God, could it be true?
From the age of five I'd been a member of the library and yet I never climbed the short flight of stairs leading to the first floor. There was no reason to -- it held the foreign language books. But now... Suddenly I put two and two together and ran all the way to the library, three or four miles, the tram seeing far too slow and roundabout for my purpose.
I will state publicly here that my collision, head on, with the rows upon rows of science fiction paperbacks on the library shelves stands as one of the two distinct pinnacles of excitement in all my 37 years of life. (The other was a fresh spring day a year or so earlier, when a stunningly beautiful Jewish girl I tutored in geography invited me to get more physical in my approach to learning. Sweet Jesus, what delights that girl had in store!)
But I was talking of science fiction, wasn't I? I spent the entire afternoon in the library and was forcibly evicted at the closing time, with two books chosen after hours of painful deliberation clutched in my hands. One was Galaxies Like Grains of Dust by Brian Aldiss, and the other The Reefs of Space, the first book of the Starchild trilogy by Fred Pohl and Jack Williamson. Despite a very shaky command of English, I read them right through at once, one through the night and the other next morning, every single word of them. I would have read the bar codes, even, if they had been invented by then.
Thus started the final stage in my transformation into a fan. One to two books a day for months and months on end, with unceasing fervor and dedication. My great-grandmother must have smiled on me benevolently from the Great Worldcon in the Sky where she went after giving up on the mundane world at the age of 90. Grandmother did smile benevolently, even though she apparently disbelieved the existence of so much SF in the world. Her disbelief was abetted by the weird covers of my paperbacks; nothing that lurid could have been serious, in her opinion. Mother did not smile benevolently; she was piqued. Only when a flurry of small press publishers appeared here in the eighties and started flooding the market with translated Angloamerican SF, did she forgive me for having the gall to look where she could not.
I didn't care much about anyone's opinion then. I read and read and read, trying to catch up on the thirty years of American and British science fiction production that had passed me by. If I could, I would have taken the books intravenously, or soaked them up through the skin; reading was so damn slow. I'd have absorbed them whole, together with the bookworms. In time, with enough bookworms ingested and accumulated, I'd have turned into a bookworm myself, a giant obese Shai-Hulud of bookdom, burrowing deep down under the library and bookstore basements, coming out in a geyser of bricks, parquet, and hardcovers only to devour the latest skiffy releases.
What saved me was supply-side economics. It delivered a shock that brought me to my senses, kept me out of the claws of depravity, and let me be just another ordinary fan. Namely, the book business went soft in the early seventies and the foreign book bookstore a couple of blocks away from my library decided to meet the challenge aggressively. They tried catering for a wider clientele, especially in the paperback section of the store, and to that purpose added several new genre lines to their usual choice of romances, gothics, and skiffy. One of the new choices, to my amazement, was pornography. Overnight there was a whole new section of shelving devoted to the Olympia Press "Traveller's Companion" line of books, with color-coded covers. Green covers for "regular" sex, yellows for the gays, pink for the kinks, etc. Some of the stuff was very good, too, exciting and beautifully written.
Hm. I cannot say I turned from a SF fan into a pornophile. No, I have always approved of explicit sex, in art and out of it, and still do. And I never stopped reading science fiction. It is just that suddenly there was a timely reminder of other things in life. Slowly I brought the reading pace down to normal, the fever receded, and I stopped bearing Ghu's witness before the world. Science fiction became Just A Goddam Hobby then, and has remained that ever since.
All illustrations by Teddy Harvia