In Memoriam: David A. Kyle and First Fandom

First Fandom closed its doors for good last week with the passing of David A. Kyle at the age of ninety-six.  Kyle had been a part of science fiction fandom from the very beginning, as a member of New York’s Futurians, and was one of its ablest historians for half a century. In particular, Kyle’s 1976 book A Pictorial History of Science Fiction had a massive influence on my own development as a science fiction fan. Purchasing the generously-sized book for just three dollars at a used bookstore with the money given to me for my thirteenth birthday, it helped to encourage me to not just read even more of the genre, but to read as much about it as well. Through Kyle’s chronicling of the history of science fiction and the people involved in its development, I learned to respect the writers, artists and fans alike who helped to build it up, and became more determined than ever to know more about what had come before me. Clearly, there was more to this field than just the few prominent authors I had read or movies I had seen, and it had a rich legacy that deserved to not just be preserved, but explored and enjoyed. It also helped make me a fan of science fiction art as well. As the title inferred, Kyle’s book was richly illustrated with artwork in the genre from its ancestral beginnings to the then-present, from  Édouard Riou’s woodcuts for the original Jules Verne books, to Frank R. Paul and other great artists of the pulp magazine to then-modern masters such as Frank Kelly Freas and Ed Emshwiller.  My younger self would spend hours poring over these marvelous pictures; I was particularly entranced by Paul’s futuristic cities and technological wonders for the Gernsback magazines (Amazing Stories, Science Wonder Stories, etc.) and Emshwiller’s humorous depictions of alien life for Galaxy.

Of course, Kyle’s book wasn’t perfect; for one thing, like many other fans of his generation, he was rather contemptuous of most science fiction movies made up to that time, to the point of not considering them “actual” science fiction but corruptions of the genre, and gave less space to discussing them than a truly thorough history should have done. He also perhaps overstated the importance of Hugo Gernsback to the growth of the field; although he was an important figure in not just naming science fiction but in defining the genre and establishing a publishing outlet for it through Amazing Stories, the first magazine devoted entirely to SF, he was less important as a creative force, not just in comparison to John W. Campbell (Astounding)  but Harold Gold (Galaxy) and Anthony Boucher (Fantasy and Science Fiction) as well. Still, you have to remember the context that Kyle was writing in: at the time, there was a new guard emerging that sought to not just redefine science fiction but the social culture built around it (sound familiar?), and First Fandom’s interests and tastes were considered anathema to it. In particular, Gernsback came under savage attack as not just as an inferior writer, but was declared the absolute worst thing to have ever happened to science fiction, as Brian Aldiss did in his popular book Billion Year Spree, at the time erroneously considered by many to be the definitive critical history of the genre. It would only be expected to have Kyle and others of his generation to try to provide a sensible counterweight to such overwrought attacks on not just Gernsback but all those others who helped build up the genre and whose legacy and reputations were in danger of being torn down or ignored. Further to his credit, he also refused to submit to the snobbishness of many other fans of the era towards comic books, recognizing their importance and singling out Marvel Comics and its editor-in-chief, “the remarkable Stan Lee” (Kyle’s words) for praise. As Kyle noted, not only was comics fandom an outgrowth of SF fandom, but so were superhero comics themselves:  Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster had met through Midwestern fandom, and two other members of New York’s First Fandom, Mort Weisinger and Julius Schwartz, would inaugurate the Silver Age of Comics when they revitalized DC’s superhero line with a heavy emphasis on SF-inspired treatments and storylines. For that matter, some of the earliest science fiction fans had been introduced to the genre through Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon.  Kyle reprinted some of their strips for the book, as well as Britain’s Dan Dare and even one of Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo strips as well, to demonstrate the parallel evolution and convergence of science fiction with the comics. The main criteria that Kyle established for judging whether something was good science fiction or not was both knowledge of science and knowledge of science fiction itself, its history and tradition. This historical and formalist approach to the aesthetic evaluation of the genre is one that has stuck with me, and one that I continue to use as an adult nearly thirty years later.

It is telling how much fandom has evolved and transformed in the forty years since Kyle’s book was written. At the time of its initial publication, there was a strong tripartite division between fans of written science fiction, fans of science fiction film and television, and comic book fans. It was more usual for someone to be a fan of one, but not the others, occasionally a fan of two, very rarely all three. It was generally acknowledged, however, that a “true fan” was someone who embraced the written word, illustrated or not. Moreover, there was strong distinction between science fiction and fantasy, and the boundary between them was rigidly enforced; one could be a fan of both, but it was understood that SF was SF and fantasy was fantasy, and never the twain shall meet. Flash-forward ten or twenty years later, the points of demarcation between science fiction and fantasy fandom were starting to weaken, as evidenced when the SFWA renamed itself the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, although not without some protest from purists. By this time, a significant number of science fiction readers and writers had emerged who had first become fans through movies and television, and it was becoming increasingly rare to find someone who was exclusively a fan of written science fiction. First came those who had grown up with science fiction movies and TV shows of the Fifties as well as Famous Monsters of Filmland, the pet project of Forrest J. Ackerman (to whom Kyle had dedicated The Pictorial History of Science Fiction). Among these fans were such major writers as Dan Simmons, Greg Bear and Howard Waldrop as well as artists such as Vincent Di Fate and Bob Eggleton, and they helped to re-evaluate the reputation of the science fiction films of the era that had been underrated by Kyle and others. Later came those who became fans through Star Trek and Star Wars, but it was more common for someone that had become a fan through them to be primarily or even only interested in movies and television, and this trend continued as the genre grew in mass popularity. Comic book fandom had massively expanded as well, but it was still very much separate from SF fandom. Moreover, a fourth fandom, dedicated to games and gaming, had emerged as well. Now, in the present day, the situation has almost completely reversed itself with TV and movies overwhelmingly dominating SF fandom to an almost suffocating degree. One is expected, even obliged, to be a fan of them to be considered a “true” fan in some circles, but it is no longer considered necessary to be a science fiction reader to be a fan, a circumstance which would have been inconceivable a generation ago. Furthermore, not only are science fiction and fantasy fandom now completely intertwined with most conventions and publications not making a distinction between either genre, but so are science fiction and comic book fandom, and there are probably now more self-declared science fiction fans who read comic books than they do prose science fiction. The gaming subculture has also become even more important to fandom thanks to personal computing and the Internet; ironically, one can probably find more real, hard science fiction being written for such games than in most recent books published and sold under the science fiction banner.

Throughout all this time, Kyle remained a stalwart defender of science fiction’s original values, attending and speaking at conventions to the very end, even starting his own Facebook page where he kept his memories of First Fandom alive. As I have stated before, we have a responsibility to continue the legacy of David Kyle and and all the others who built the foundations of both science fiction and its associated fandom. We must never forget that it is the written word that comes first, that the genre has a rich history that long precedes us, and that current favorites, no matter how fervent their followings, owe a heavy debt to the originators of the field and that those predecessors are every bit as deserving of attention and appreciation.

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