Enter First Fandom Experience
At PulpFest 2019, I discovered an extraordinary project called, First Fandom Experience. Father and son, David and Daniel Ritter, are dedicated pulp fans and collectors with a special interest in the early days of science fiction fandom. They, along with core team members—John L. Coker III, Sam McDonald, Doug Ellis and Kate Baxter—have created a database of materials which they make available through their website, books, and on social media. Part 1 of this interview, published on the PulpFest blog in September, was a general introduction to FFE, its goals, background and team.
In Part 2 we’ll take a closer look at the first fandom of the 1930’s and how it set the standard for science fiction fandom in the years that followed. This article is exclusive to the Lucina Press blog.
Science fiction/fantasy fans are very smart, they’re extremely well read and always have been. Today, we have enormous opportunities for fandom through conventions, movies, television, books, comics, magazines, and various forms of social media. Because of the connectivity of media today, it’s easy to imagine that fans from past eras were less smart, less organized, and generally less interested. This is simply not the case. When Hugo Gernsback coined the phrase, “science fiction” (originally “scientifiction”) in the 1920’s, the era of science fiction fandom began. Very quickly there arose a synergy between the first fans and professional writers and editors. We see this in the form of stories and artwork created by the pros for the fanzines. We also see out-of-the-box writing projects, contests, and commentaries from professional pulp writers. Of course, this was all done on paper and these bits of ephemera, existing in private or library collections, are hard to come by today.
The Ritters decided to do something about that. They, along with their team—a select board of historians and specialty collectors—created the First Fandom Experience project (FFE) to preserve and make public ephemera from those early days.
The materials collected by FFE provide rare insight into the wild creativity and enthusiasm of the first fans of science fiction. Their round-robin story projects are legendary—COSMOS, THE GREAT ILLUSION, and THE CHALLENGE FROM BEYOND. Their enthusiasm is both undeniable and unbridled. They extolled science fiction’s virtues as if trying the convince the world of their value. In truth, they were.
FFE makes rare historic ephemera available to modern sci-fi fans and historians. Some are available for purchase from the FFE website—facsimile copies of COSMOS, Science Fiction Digest and Fantasy Magazine. But also through free images on social media including pages from rare fanzines, paraphernalia from early science fiction conventions, and artwork from notables such as Ray Harryhausen.
The FFE hardcover book, THE VISUAL HISTORY OF SCIENCE FICTION FANDOM: Volume One, the 1930s, covers the emergence and development of science fiction fandom in its first decade. In the book we see rare commentaries, photos, artwork, and fun tidbits such as an ice cream sundae referring to popular pulp stories of the time.
COSMOS: The first science fiction round robin novel
David Ritter, Editor-in-Chief of FFE, discovered the legendary and “quite peculiar” round-robin novel, COSMOS, while researching E. E. “Doc” Smith’s bibliography. Smith was the author of one of COSMOS’ most popular chapters, “What a Course!” His story was later re-written as a stand alone piece and published under the title of “Robot Nemesis” in THRILLING WONDER STORIES in June of 1939.
COSMOS was first published in 1933 as a serialized insert in the fanzine, Science Fiction Digest (later renamed, Fantasy Magazine). The novel consisted of seventeen chapters written by sixteen prominent authors, including pulp luminaries: A. Merritt, Otis Adelbert Kline, Ralph Milne Farley, E.E. “Doc” Smith, and Edmond Hamilton. It was primarily organized by Raymond A. Palmer, then Literary Editor of Science Fiction Digest. According to David Ritter, “The way COSMOS came together in the early 1930s is a microcosm of the overall phenomenon of organized fandom during that decade. The ambitious youngsters behind this grab-bag of a novel went on to found and largely dominate the science fiction genre for the next several decades. Their energy and optimism was infectious even as it reached across the intervening ninety years.”
The entire text of COSMOS, including period commentaries, is available through the FFE website as The Cosmos Project. Opinions vary as to COSMOS’ quality. Writing styles differ by author and the story lacks a certain overall cohesion. The latter is understandable due to the lack of communication between the writers, something we take for granted today. Those critiques aside, it is an exciting story. You cheer for the characters and for the eventual success of Sol’s armada against the invaders. Ray Palmer, as editor, was the central point for the undertaking, and it was he who developed the initial concept. COSMOS was an exciting and inspired project, the beginning of all shared world novels in the field of science fiction.
A Wealth of Projects
According to FFE research, fan-created content grew exponentially during the 1930’s. At the beginning of the decade, the total number of fan-created pages was a paltry 124. But by the end, the number had grown to a whopping 3,449 pages of content. Science fiction fan clubs, first started as a promotional stunt by Hugo Gernsback in 1934, blossomed into nationwide clubs during that decade. Although they were concentrated in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and the Bay Area, Philadelphia and several cities in the middle of the country also had good club rosters. First fans weren’t limited to the United States, either. We see active fan clubs in the U.K. New Zealand, and Australia, also. Active clubs led to the birth of science fiction conventions. The First Eastern Convention was held in Philadelphia in 1936 and the first World Science Fiction Convention in New York in 1939.
At the beginning of the decade we see two fanzines: THE COMET and THE PLANET. By 1934, there were at least ten popular fanzines, and by 1939, a dozen titles were active (not including all the titles which had ceased publication sometime earlier in the decade.) One of these early fanzines, HORIZONS, ran continuously from 1939-2003.
The larger fanzines were very professionally presented. According to Sam Moskowitz, the king of all fanzines was SCIENCE FICTION DIGEST. “For all-round quality Science Fiction Digest has never been surpassed in the history of fandom. Its regular columns became famous…Excellent original fiction by such authors as A. Merritt, Raymond Palmer, P. Schuyler Miller, Clark Ashton Smith, Dr. David H. Keller, C. L. Moore, Mortimer Weisinger, Donald Wandrei and Arthur J. Burks appeared regularly. A biography or autobiography of a famous author, artist or editor connected with the field was included in almost every issue. The outstanding authors—among them Lovecraft, Weinbaum, Leinster, Smith and Howard—combined their talents on a cooperative basis to produce two popular tales, ‘The Challenge from Beyond’ and ‘The Great Illusion.’ Most legendary of all, however, was the novel Cosmos, written by eighteen authors1 and issued with the magazine in supplementary serial form. Besides such special features, Science Fiction Digest printed solid, interesting, factual articles in every number. Up until the end of its life it remained the undisputed leader in the field, and its influence on the varied currents of fan history was profound indeed.” – from THE IMMORTAL STORM.
Many smaller fanzines were hand-drawn, hand-written, and quite lovingly presented. They were the kind of thing that anyone could create with a pencil, crayon, and a good imagination. There’s probably no accurate way to count these smaller, handmade fanzines but you can imagine there were many.
The Future of the Past
Historians and fans of early science fiction (and pulp material, in general) must make allowances for what might be considered “objectionable” material today. There has been much debate about the value of dated information which includes racist views. This issue must be considered with a certain level of sensitivity, carefully weighing the material’s historic value against offense by readers/viewers. This is an ongoing a task for FFE staff. “The fundamental challenge is that some of the views expressed in the history of science fiction and fandom are simply objectionable. It’s important that we as collectors, historians, and authors see and accept that, do not diminish or hide it but instead try to appropriately contextualize it. We make no attempt to shy away from or cover up these views, nor do we make any attempt to justify or rationalize them. They are part of the story.”
Alpha and Omega
It has been said that a study of the past can help you to divine the future. While this is not a universally popular view today, it certainly has been historically accurate. The First Fandom Experience project gives contemporary fans a historical context for the content they enjoy so much. Although many fans are not interested in the history, having the material available to those who are is a great service. Science fiction today trends in a dark, dystopian direction. The progress of this trend can be seen shaping up over several decades until it is almost the norm today. It is worthwhile to understand that this was not the case during the Great Depression when first fandom began. In fact, during the 1930’s, there were many pulp stories promising great hope for mankind. They predicted a brighter future based on space travel, beneficial trade with other planets, and unification of Earth for the collective good. Sure, it’s easy to call these ideas naïve fairy tales packed with pseudo-science and impossible aliens. But, I’d counter that to lock down our imaginations with dark, “serious” trends is extremely dangerous. Our eyes remain ever downcast as we contemplate a future where mankind slowly starves on planet devoid of resources. Men and women are shameful pariahs on this dying Earth, deserving of the horrible fate that awaits them. I don’t believe this and never will. We are still the same race that once looked to the stars and dreamed of a united planet with plentiful resources created and fostered by developing sciences.
In the early days of science fiction fandom we see bright young minds creating fresh projects full of hope. FFE provides the details of an important past in the form of social proof. We need this today, more than ever. It is very easy to feel the enthusiasm of the first fans coming through what they wrote, drew and designed. Their expansive dreams are a tonic that we can all use in 2020. And, who knows? It may lead to some new innovative trends in contemporary sci-fi, something that the first fans would definitely recognize as their own legacy.
To find out more about the First Fandom Experience project please stop by their website, follow them on Twitter (@FirstFandomExp) and Instagram (firstfandomexperience) or subscribe to their blog. Their books can be purchased through their website or on Amazon.
(All images used in this article are courtesy of First Fandom Experience.)
1 Moskowitz refers to eighteen authors when they are really only sixteen/seventeen. Ray Palmer has two chapters as Raymond A. Palmer and Rae Winters. Chapter 8: “Volunteers from Venus” is credited to both Otis Adelbert Kline and E. Hoffmann Price, although often only Kline gets the author’s nod.
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Did you know that I won the 2020 COSMOS Prize for re-writing the last chapter of COSMOS? I did! *so proud* Read all about it here.