The history of New York fandom is one of the most complex to follow, not only
during the 1960s, but in other decades as well. Next is an article by one of New
York's earliest fans, Dave Kyle. Previously, Dave has described some of the
intrigues of New York-area fandoms, but this time he writes of an era before there
even was a fandom.
I was born in the second month of 1919. I'm a white-haired old man now (1996) and inside my head are swirling mists of memory of my first decade of life. I'm trying today to peer behind those curtains in my brain and to recall and to examine and to write about events of those ten years, not just for Mimosa but for me and my children as well. I'm curious to know: when did my science fiction life begin -- and how?
Not quite ten years after I appeared on this earth, Buck Rogers awoke from his sleep in the comic pages of America and gave millions of people a vision of the 25th century. And for me, too. But what was my life like before I met Buck?
I was raised in the roaring twenties. Airships and airplanes were evolving, experimental radio broadcasting was developing rapidly beyond the crystal set and pictures which silently moved were sometimes in color and occasionally squawking. I saw maps of the canals on Mars and I played a piano by pumping pedals with my feet. I heard music out of boxes with wax cylinders and/or revolving thick flat platters. And from time to time a good-humored, well-dressed man came to my house with a black bag to give me pills even if it wasn't me who was sick.
Like a coalescing solar system, 'science fiction literature' was being shaped, as the Victorian Age ended and the 1900s began, into a distinctive genre. Its life-sparks had been struck in earlier centuries, but science fiction's heart began to beat in the last century. Now, at the beginning of the end of the second millennium even as I was coming into being in 1919, its spirit was growing everywhere -- unnamed but tangible, waiting to be identified and to be baptized by its modern father, Gernsback.
In retrospect it is so very difficult for me to comprehend that the giant in the science fiction magazine field, the one who recognized the unique niche and created scientifiction (scientific fiction) and science fiction with its fandom, Hugo Gernsback, rose and fell within a decade -- from 1926 to 1936. This historical fact is almost incomprehensible -- only ten years, ten years which shaped my life as well as the lives of so many of my friends.
During that decade when I was a skinny child, from almost the first to the last days of the twenties, my mother and I spent many weeks during the winter in Florida, sent there by my father for our health. Those times were a prelude to my entrance into the worlds of science fiction. My much older brother stayed north in school. The two most important activities while we were there, usually in Indian River, a suburb of Miami, for me were reading and watching the weekly movie program. I very much remember Indian River because I was branded by the sun on my very first day of arrival and spent a week recovering from the burns. Saturday mornings I was permitted to go to the theater for the early matinee which was designed to appeal to the kids -- and naturally I was captivated by the exciting serials, adventure films which were the forerunners of the science and fantasy films to come. At other times I was encouraged to buy books, though not magazines. It was in the book department of Burdine's huge department store in downtown Miami that I found most of my bliss, looking for the latest Tom Swift book.
In home town Monticello, N.Y., as I was learning to read, there was a local 'movie house'. In the early twenties, films were projected on a portable screen in the meeting hall, called The Lyceum. The big, white, rectangular barn of a building was the popular site for all local entertainment, especially for the inter-village basketball rivalry where the court was cleared and the folding chairs pushed back against the walls. I remember the fascination of the prehistoric scenes of The Lost World while the piano set an exciting mood. From then on, the cinema for me was a dramatic magic carpet supplementing the printed word. Unfortunately, movies were a rare event for me, as they were for most people. In retrospect I remember longing hopelessly to see Fritz Lang's silent German films, The Girl in the Moon and Metropolis, about which I read and saw photographs. However, it was the more prevalent themes of adventure which fascinated me -- something the cinema could do so well for just five or ten cents. Fantasy films and war stories and aviation films were merely part of all adventure stories for me when my hero on the silver screen was Douglas Fairbanks and his swashbuckling was the rage. Fantasy films were rare and science fiction films were virtually non-existent. Their times would come, so it was the book store and the library which shaped my imaginative life.
During that decade, as I progressed in learning and my knowledge grew, I was inevitably moving along a track toward the passion of my life -- science fiction. But, strange to contemplate in this day and age as our century draws to a close, there was no such thing called 'science fiction', not even in 1926 after Hugo Gernsback started Amazing Stories. (My second decade began in 1929 still unaware of 'science fiction'.)
How did I identify this fiction as a boy which would change my pattern of thinking? Many stories I read were more than mere grown-up fairy tales.
When I was little, before I could barely read, the cow jumped over the moon; Dorothy was whirled away into another land; a rabbit fell down a hole in the ground and visited an animated pack of cards; a little girl walked through a mirror to a different place; some tiny people called Brownies were everywhere in our house. These were among fairy tales read to me by my mother. As I grew older, I found that fairy tales were for adults, too. In books I could travel in a vehicle around the moon where the cow once jumped. I could take a trip, not in a pea-green boat, but in a not-yet-invented atomic submarine. Still later, I even found the first men on the moon and learned that Martians were our enemy.
For the most part, quite naturally, my first readings were works of juvenile fiction. However, I was given a book collection which did for me then what Gernsback later did for me -- it gave me a sense of wonder and stretched my imagination way, way out to the stars. The collection was the set of The Books of Knowledge, a passport to our entire world and far beyond our solar system. I was utterly fascinated by every feature in the books. Every story and poem and article and picture together were in so many ways more important to my education than formal school learning. The fairy tales and magic kingdoms were there, but even more interesting were the stories of reality and the science and the history lessons, about the past and the present and the expected future which left me hungering for answers to new questions and ideas and for the realities-beyond-reality. Inspired by the sections about astronomy, I took from the family attic my father's transit theodolite, his surveying instrument, and pointing it into the night skies like a telescope, saw Saturn and its rings. For the first, awe-inspiring time I was a traveler in space. Over and over, those large, slick, quality-printed pages stimulated me, gifted me with what I would come to know as a Gernsbackian spirit and a sense of wonder.
Those Knowledge books, with their dark blue bindings and silvery embossing, convinced me that the future was even more wondrous than what Tom Swift, juvenile literature's heroic boy inventor, was showing me. Beyond all doubt, I knew that in my future I would travel in flying trains, view lost civilizations, own an electric rifle, see pictures from a wireless box, swallow pills which would keep me from dentists, and perhaps, before my death in the next century, see a real rocket ship and actually shake the hand of a human who had walked on the moon or Mars.
My wide-ranging reading became an amalgam of subjects light and serious, the juvenile and the adult, fiction and non-fiction. Particularly influential in shaping my tastes was newspaper publisher W.R. Hearst's The American Weekly which so often had sensational scientific or pseudo-scientific articles about interplanetary speculations and other provocative subjects. The weekly section came with the Sunday papers. My priority was first to devour the comic pages (regrettably before the advent of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon). Many, many years later I was thrilled to learn that A. Merritt had been the principal editor responsible for such subject matter.
When reading became a fixed habit, adventure stories were very much my favorites. I loved the big books with the large type and the full-page, colorful illustrations by the great artists of the day, such as N. C. Wyeth and Arthur Rackham. Treasure Island and Drums, with artwork glued to the cover, stick in my mind like beautiful literary landmarks along the way. And pointing toward my future were certain fictitious characters such as the Englishman/savage Lord Greystoke and the American John Carter, Virginian aristocrat, both at my elbow steering me into new dimensions. But most of all, there was my contemporary hero, the youth with whom I really could relate, Tom Swift, boy inventor.
At the time, in the late twenties when I was reading a lot, there was a dearth of the early science fiction material. Adventure stories were what interested me the most, and all the unmarked science fiction which I came across were simply special kinds of adventure. I was only just discovering magazines, such as The American Boy and Boy's Life and The Open Road for Boys, with occasional fantasy tales. Yes, girls obviously were considered only customers.
From the family's set of Harvard Classics, I read Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift and other popular writers. There was Jules Verne and his voyages extraordinaire. There was H. G. Wells and his scientific romances. Like the Tom Swift novels, I didn't know they were 'science fiction' and nobody else did either.
As I've indicated, I had no name for the material I read. I had no one understandable description for my literary dreams until Gernsback invented the term in my second decade. Just as 'Buck Rogers' became the popular label for the uniformed general public in the 1930s and 40s for the as-yet-unacknowledged term of 'science fiction', so did 'Tom Swift' serve that purpose in the earlier decade.
As a boy, I used the label 'like Tom Swift' or 'Roy Rockwood stuff' or 'an Edgar Rice Burroughs kind of adventure'. I'm sure that before my time the names of 'H. Rider Haggard' or 'Edgar Allen Poe', maybe even 'Conan Doyle', were used descriptively like Verne's or Wells'. Incidentally, the Roy Rockwell juvenile novels which dated back almost a decade before my birth were barely known to me, not being contemporary with the Tom Swift books.
However, there was one type of adventure which completely dominated my interests. Anything about airships, airplanes, flying machines. The half dozen years which preceded my puberty were preoccupied with the technological and death-dealing romance of aviation. Charles A. Lindbergh, 'The Lone Eagle', had flown the Atlantic Ocean. The skies were the new frontier! I was utterly captivated by the heroic feats of the flying warriors of the World War (the original) and their incredible machines which were only a few years beyond the days of the flimsy, motorized box kites. I dreamt of those dashing times when the knights of the air met in thrilling combat. I studied the vintage planes. I read the biographies of the aces. I soaked up the lore of that bloody conflict. I built model airplanes and got my picture in the newspaper with my huge model of the NC-4, the Navy's flying boat which flew around the world, a crowd of other kids around me. I made small paper airplanes, decorated them in garish colors, and invented a game with them.
I found the German side somehow more attractive, perhaps because they seemed more romantic, more innovative, and rather more sinister, with their flashy designs and black Maltese Crosses. Von Richtofen was my superman of the day. 'The Red Baron' -- what an image he made!
One long week in 1927 or 1928, while staying in the Pennsylvania Hotel in New York City, I was ill with some kind of wintery disease. I was there with my mother on one of our not infrequent visits to Manhattan, a hundred-mile trip by hired car and Erie Railroad out of Middletown, N.Y., which was no easy undertaking. The hotel on 33rd Street -- right across from the stone temple which was the Pennsylvania Railroad Station -- was not unfamiliar to me (I've previously described, in Mimosa 13, my encounter with the stage show Dracula, which happened on another of those trips), but we had never stayed so long before. It was in that hotel-cum-hospital ward during that dreary week that I discovered the hotel had a library, and in that library I found a book by Floyd Gibbons entitled The Red Knight of Germany. I relished that book. Despite those questionable convalescent days, when my mother never really relented from imposing the sentence of sickness upon me, I took off on dawn patrols anyhow, stalking my prey and returning to camaraderie with coffee and wine and cigarettes and song complete with devil-may-care salutes and medals on tunics.
My aeronautical enchantment led me to build a miniature aerodrome in the back yard with landing lights which I could turn on at night from my back bedroom in our house. I still relive the exciting aerial moments of the motion picture Wings which won in 1928 the first Academy Award. I saw it in New York City at the Criterion Theater on Times Square (with my mother). I am still impressed by the dramatic enlargement of the silver screen which unexpectedly doubled in size for the aerial battles, as curtains were drawn back, and the full orchestra, drums rattling away like gunfire, vibrated throughout the huge auditorium and into my chest as I sat in my deep, plush seat. It wasn't until a year later that I saw or heard about the German UFA production of The Rocket to the Moon (The Girl in the Moon) and never knew that Gernsback's Science Wonder Stories was first appearing on the newsstands in 1929. Otherwise, I wonder, might not my aerodrome have become a space port?
When my second ten years of life began in that historical science fiction year of 1929, I almost made the jump into the genesis of science fiction with Gernsback when Amazing bred the Wonders and they bred Astounding. But that's the second part of my progress into fandom and already partly mentioned in Mimosa 7 in my article "A Hugo Gernsback Author."
And so it has come to pass that I have lived a long life and have seen a certain type of literature be identified, popularized and spread throughout our world's culture. I discovered it when it was a seed newly grown and blossoming. I sniffed its fragrance, was intoxicated by its vapors, and showed the unique flower to everyone. I wanted everyone to enjoy and understand. I was derided at first, then reluctantly heard, grudgingly accepted for my enthusiasms, and finally found my beloved science fiction honored by everyone everywhere.
My boyhood mission has been completed: science fiction is acknowledged and respected. It was a long fight and an exciting one, with my side triumphant in the end. I can look back with pleasure and satisfaction to those glorious days when Tom Swift was my brother and Tarzan and John Carter were my companions. Soon to appear were Buck and Flash as my interplanetary comrades, then the two Docs (Savage and Smith) taking me into the jungles and into the stars -- soon, too, the awesome worlds of Huxley and Orwell, the visions of Stapleton and van Vogt and Roddenberry. And the personal friendships with Clarke and Asimov and Bradbury.
What do we have today? Too much, yet not enough. Everywhere one turns there is 'sci-fi' -- from Saturday morning TV superheros and super monsters to the super special-effects of the movies and television. Science fiction has become indistinguishable from fantasy -- on cereal boxes, video games, and the classrooms.
Once I was starved -- now I'm overfed. Once I found mental nourishment by careful harvesting in obscure places -- now I am stuffed with empty calories forced upon me from everywhere and every direction.
I don't have to proselytize as I once did -- everyone has heard of science fiction nowadays. Instead, I have a new and unhappy task -- to explain that not all science fiction is good science fiction, that fireworks without thoughts are not really, truly mentally exciting but deadly dull. Science fiction was once great fun and often profound. In the old days I had to seek out 'science fiction' -- good, bad, or indifferent -- and the hunt and discovery was absolutely thrilling. Nowadays I have to seek cover, avoiding the overwhelming mass of bad and indifferent stuff and nonsense. Once I defended as worthy that unknown thing called science fiction and strove to make it known -- nowadays I have to defend that thing called science fiction as being worthy because it is so well known -- so well known as being mostly entertaining, escapist junk.
So, I look back at the past. My first decade was a promising beginning to the glory days. The next decade, my terrific teen years, would be the best of all, and that story is next to be told. In my opening ten years, I only just touched the real romance of science fiction. The orchestra was just tuning up -- the thundering music was yet to come.
Olaf Stapleton in 1930 spoke of the music mankind makes, "...a matrix of storms and stars... we may go forward together with laughter in our hearts... thankful for the past..."
All illustrations by Joe Mayhew