Category: Writers

In Memoriam: David A. Kyle and First Fandom

In Memoriam: David A. Kyle and First Fandom

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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.

In Memoriam: David G. Hartwell

In Memoriam: David G. Hartwell

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You only have one chance to make a good first impression on someone. I hope I did so the first and only time I ever met David Hartwell; I know he made a good impression on me. It was at the 2013 conference at McMaster University in honor of Robert Sawyer; I was presenting a paper there and David was one of the guests. After Robert’s keynote address, I had the chance to meet David, as well Robert Charles Wilson and Élisabeth Vonarburg. I remember chatting with one of the Roberts, maybe both of them, along with some other guests when he walked up to our little circle with a drink in his hand and a big smile on his face. I had never seen a photo of him, but seeing his name tag sent a shudder of recognition as I realized that one of science fiction’s finest living editors had just strolled up to me. Semi-nervously, I extended my hand. “Mr. Hartwell, it’s a pleasure to meet you, thanks for coming! The Ascent of Wonder is one of my favorite anthologies!” He shook my hand vigorously and sincerely responded “Thank you, that’s very kind of you!”

The first and now I know, only time. I’m glad it was a chance to let him know how important he was to me and many others as an editor and anthologist. That is how he made a first impression on me, long before I met this gracious gentleman that September afternoon. He and Gardner Dozois carried on the tradition begun by Judith Merril and Terry Carr of providing competing annual anthologies of the year’s best science fiction; if a story was selected by both editors, it was usually a good sign of exceptionally high quality. Furthermore, together with his wife Kathryn Cramer, Hartwell edited both the aforementioned The Ascent of Wonder and The Hard SF Renaissance, which together provide the definitive survey of the subgenre of hard science fiction, that is very much core to the genre as a whole. While I have a few quibbles about some of their selections, whether it’s because I question whether or not they constitute hard science fiction or because of their overall quality, both books are essential not just as story compilations but for the discussion and thematic analysis provided by the editors (and by Gregory Benford in the introduction). And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

By a sad coincidence, I had met Hartwell just one day after the death of one of my closest friends. She had helped to mentor me as a writer and scholar, and through the example of her own kindness and resilience, had encouraged me to be a better person as well. In the days after learning about her passing, as I sadly scanned the Internet for news about her, I learned I was far from alone, that there were so many others who she had helped and had been touched by her in just the same way. Those who had David Hartwell for an editor must have also known what that felt like.

 

The (other) Conquest of Space

Robert Conquest, one of the greatest and most important historians of the 20th Century, died earlier this week at the age of ninety-nine. His most lasting legacy, of course, was his exposing the fraud of communism to the intelligentsia and the public, although sadly many still remain in denial of his findings regarding Stalin’s body count. I am reasonably certain most readers of this journal are not among those that need to have Conquest’s evidence presented to them; I am in fact quite certain that most of them know his name, and even if they have not had the chance to read his monumental works The Great Terror and Harvest of Sorrow, have read other credible sources that have cited them as impeccable sources on the topic.

But how many of you are also aware that he was a science fiction fan?

As mentioned near the end of his obituary in the Daily Telegraph, Conquest was an early member of the British Interplanetary Society, persuaded to join by his friend Arthur C. Clarke.  Another close friend was Kingsley Amis, with whom Conquest edited the five-book Spectrum anthology series for Gollancz Publishing; in addition to collecting some of the best science fiction written up to then for British readers, Conquest provided some essays published in the anthologies and elsewhere in which he provided some of the earliest-and strongest-arguments for the already-existing literary merit of the genre. And like Amis, he ventured into SF writing himself, publishing at least one genuine science fiction novel, A World of Difference, in which he “Tuckerized” Clarke as “Sir Arthur, President of the Interplanetary Society.” Perhaps his most lasting legacy to the field was this charming ditty, included in the second volume of Spectrum:

Sf’s no good,”
They bellow till we’re deaf.
“But this looks good.”
“Well then, it’s not sf.”

As revealing as it may be of the attitude towards science fiction by much of the intellectual and literary elites (and is still held by many to this day; try explaining to some people how Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go are full-fledged science fiction, and you’ll get lots of pushback), it is also revealing of the nature of Conquest himself.  Like so many other words and terms, “speaking truth to power” has been badly distorted and stretched so that it has nothing to do with its original meaning; nowadays, it simply means giving people what they want to hear, a complete inversion of its original intent. No matter what the subject he addressed, he was never afraid to speak the actual truth, reveal the actual facts, and use them to form a cogent, fully reasoned argument. We can best carry on his legacy not just by ensuring his books are read and remembered, but by continuing his methods and approach to both the real world and imagined ones alike.

We Love You, Spider

We Love You, Spider

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Fans and friends of Hugo-winning science fiction writer Spider Robinson were saddened by the news that his daughter Terri died earlier this week after a brave fight with breast cancer. The tragedy is all the greater coming four years after the death of Spider’s beloved wife and frequent co-author Jeanne from a rare form of biliary duct cancer. Robinson has long been one of SF’s most beloved figures, not just for his terrific novels and short stories but for being a delightful presence as a speaker and filk singer at conventions, and even among those of us who have also gone through the tremendous loss of loved ones, it is hard for us to conceive what it must be like to lose the two most important people in your life so soon and so close together.

Spider was one of numerous science fiction and fantasy writers who I first learned about through Canada’s legendary interview program Prisoners of Gravity, a beloved and very much ahead-of-its-time show that helped expose viewers to both up-and-coming and veteran authors, and handled issues and subjects with a mixture of sophisticated intelligence and flip humor (er, humour, we’re talking Canada here). Among the other authors I was introduced to through the show were Robert Sawyer, Neal Gaiman and George R.R. Martin, but Spider always stood out, not just for his striking appearance (think a tall, long-haired Steve Buscemi in a straw hat), but his folksy demeanor and storytelling ability, and-this has always been important to his fans-a sense of humour that was ribald yet intelligent, biting yet gentle. This guy, I thought to myself, is an author to seek out. In short order I bought or took out and read many of his books: Stardance, written in collaboration with his Jeanne, Time Pressure, Mindkiller, Telempath, the collections Melancholy Elephants and User Friendly and of course, the Callahan’s Cross-Time Saloon Series. Oh, my cup runneth over!

But before all of those, I read “Rah, Rah R.A.H!” This was Robinson’s full-throated defense of Robert A. Heinlein, originally delivered as a speech at the 1980 Boston Science Fiction Convention and reprinted in 1992 in the Heinlein tribute book Requiem, edited by Yoji Kondo (along with “Robert,” his more personal reminiscence of his friendship with the man who made him a science fiction fan and inspired him to be a writer). Despite being a self-professed liberal lamb, Robinson enthusiastically  set aflame every straw man argument and criticism made against Heinlein with the cackling glee of Margaret Hamilton, and it’s even more satisfying to read them today in this era of self-righteous Social Justice Carrie Nations decrying Heinlein (often without even bothering to read a single one of his books) for not meeting their Production Code regarding political and social correctness.

Now here’s where the story gets personal. I had read Robinson’s essay during a break from summer school English class, when my teacher told us that for bonus marks, we could write a letter to an author of our choice (living or dead; you could write to Shakespeare or Tennessee Williams if you liked). I was one of two students to do so (the other student chose William S. Burroughs) and decided to write a letter to Robinson, specifically, a reply to “Rah, Rah R.A.H!” I forget exactly what I wrote about, but it was good enough to get an A+ and after sitting down and looking at it for a while, I said to myself “You know what? This is also good enough to send.” So I did. Two months or so later…there came a letter with the return address of Tottering-on-the-Brink, British Columbia. Never heard of that place, who sent this? Well, it turns out Spider Robinson had also thought the letter was good enough…for a reply! And what impressed me the most is that, as my father told me, “he wrote to you as an adult” not a teenager, much less a student. It was an act of kindness and respect I will never forget, as well as a learning moment in how to approach people.

What can us, Spider’s fans, provide other than heartfelt messages of consolation during this tragic time? In “Rah, Rah R.A.H!” Spider said that if you truly want to honor Heinlein’s memory, you should give blood, as much as you can, and that’s what you should do as well. Cancer patients are always need of transfusions due to the side effects of chemotherapy, and some need them more than others due to the type of cancer and how it affects the body and the production of blood cells. If you haven’t signed up to be a bone marrow donor, do so; if you aren’t eligible to be one, get as many people as you know who are to sign up for the registry. If you plan to have kids, also plan to have the umbilical cord donated for stem cell therapy. Donate to local cancer charities, and participate in walks, runs, and other sporting events to raise funds or sponsor those who are participating. Do everything you can to be a friend and a helping hand…even to people who have no clue you exist. Be the sort of good man Spider Robinson was to me more than twenty years ago.

And never lose your sense of humour.