‘FOLLOWERS and glorifiers of the fantastical like to think that they are different, that they represent something new on the face of the earth; mutants born with an intelligence and a sense of farseeing appreciation just a bit higher than the norm. They like to believe that their counterpart has never before existed, that they have no predecessors. “No one,” they say, “has ever seen our visions, dreamed our dreams. Never before has man’s brain reached out so far into the limitless stretches of the cosmos about him.”‘The Immortal Storm: A History of Science Fiction Fandom, Sam Moskowitz 1954 https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/1330615
By the 1950s Science Fiction Fandom was so well established as a concept that notable fan, writer and critic Sam Moskowitz felt that he could write a history of (mainly) US fandom. As the opening paragraph (above) suggests, Moskowitz was observing many of the same features often attributed to science fiction fandom and fans. Moskowitz also noted that a common fallacy was to think of science fiction and fandom as being particularly American (or American-British) whereas it was a worldwide phenomenon even if fan groups in other nations were necessarily closely connected. Nor was fandom simply people sharing reviews of favourite stories. Of the international fannish groups that Moskowitz identified, he included the pre-war German group Verein für Raumschiffahrt (which Moskowitz calls the German Rocket Group) whose practical interest in rocketry “presaged the German “buzz-bombs’ of the Second World War” (the group had come together as advisors for Fritz Lang’s film Frau im Mond, and did later include a young Werner von Braun). Willy Ley, a member of the group who fled Germany because of the rise of the Nazis and who was also a notable figure in US fandom and a science fiction writer.
Ley himself would famously document the overlap between pseudoscience and a willingness to take fantastical fiction as fact in his famous 1947 essay Pseudoscience in Naziland, pointing out how groups pushing unfounded esoteric beliefs helped foster Nazism.
“The next group was literally founded upon a novel. That group which I think called itself Wahrheitsgesellschaft — Society for Truth — and which was more or less localized in Berlin, devoted its spare time looking for Vril. Yes, their convictions were founded upon Bulwer-Lytton’s “The Coming Race.” They knew that the book was fiction, Bulwer-Lytton had used that device in order to be able to tell the truth about this “power.” The subterranean humanity was nonsense, Vril was not, Possibly it had enabled the British. who kept it as a State secret, to amass their colonial empire.”Pseudoscience in Naziland, Willy Ley, Astounding Science Fiction, May 1947, http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/title.cgi?115880
Fandom was/is a world of contrasts and eclectic ideas. While Ley’s interest in the esoteric was primarily in debunking pseudoscientific ideas, part of the culture of fandom has long been an interest in the new and strange concepts.
Moskowitz’s history also characterised fandom as a culture prone to feuds and disputes. Many of these were interpersonal conflicts played out between or within fan groups. Others, such as the First Staple War of 1934 were self-aware parodies of fannish disputes.
Fan activities included meetings and also self-produced magazines and, inevitably, conventions. In July 1939 the ambitiously named World Science Fiction Convention was held in New York with 200 attendees. The very first Worldcon (as the convention would be later called) had its own fannish controversy when the chair Sam Moskowitz excluded the leftwing fan group known as the Futurians. The dispute was motivated by political differences, inter-group rivalry and personal enmity particularly between Moskowitz and one of the Futurian founding members Donald Wolheim. The exclusion of the Futurians raised the question from the very first Worldcon of who could attend and whether there was a segment of fandom too potentially difficult to allow in.
The first Worldcon (aka Nycon for New York convention) was followed by a second in Chicago in 1940 (Chicon, with Guest of Honour E.E. “Doc” Smith) and a third in Denver in 1941 (Denvention, with Guest of Honour Robert A Heinlein). The entry of the USA into World War II put an end to further Worldcons until 1946.
A Golden Age and Beyond
The war didn’t place fandom in a cryogenic vault. In America at least, it continued to develop and organise. Futurian Damon Knight led calls for a national fan organisation in 1941 that became the National Fantasy Fan Federation (or N3F). In the following decades, the group did include many notable fans and writers such as Forrest J. Ackerman, Bob Tucker and Marion Zimmer Bradley but attempts to create a kind of unified fandom were never likely to succeed.
The science-fiction and fantasy community continued to be a culture of contradictions. It could be both patriarchal and also a space with many notable women. It was (is) a community fascinated by science but also one where esoteric ideas were often blurred between fiction and claims of fact — a notable example being the publication in the 1940s of the so-called “Shaver Mysteries” which mixed claims of psychic powers with lost civilisations.
With the end of the war, science fiction conventions began again in earnest. As a prominent convention, Worldcon took on a role as a “gathering of the tribes”. Run as a kind of perpetual relay race of new organising committees for each iteration, Worldcon itself was an odd experiment in social organisation, existing as a serial series of entities that take on the running of Worldcon. This was later codified as a nominal organisation (in 1961?) as the World Science Fiction Society. In principle, the WSFS can have a completely different executive and membership every year and yet maintain a kind of organisational continuity. This kind of almost utopian anarcho-democracy led to Worldcons being oddly both slow to change and yet flexible. This mix of consistency and flexibility perhaps led to a degree of longevity for the WSFS that was otherwise difficult for organised fandom.
While Europe was recovering and the world’s political landscape had changed utterly, America was entering a period of both economic prosperity and cultural hegemony. Notable editor John W Campbell of Astounding Stories had been fostering and promoting talented science fiction authors since the 1930s (the July 1939 issue of Astounding featured A.E. van Vogt, Isaac Asimov and the following month, Robert Heinlein ) and was having a profound influence on post-war science fiction.
It was into this environment that Worldcon added a new feature to the annual convention: an award.
The Hugo Awards
The eleventh Worldcon was held in Philadelphia in 1953 and as an addition to the activities, a set of awards were given in a range of categories. The awards included best novel (The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester, which had been serialised in Galaxy), best magazine (award jointly to Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction and Galaxy edited by H. L. Gold). Awards were also given for cover artists and interior artists (Hannes Bok, Ed Emshwiller, Virgil Finlay), factual writing (Willy Ley), the best newcomer (Philip José Farmer) and “fan personality’ (Forrest J Ackerman). The award categories mapped out a kind of sphere of interest for fans and Worldcon: novels, magazines, artists, fan activities, non-fiction and new talent.
Worldcon skipped awards in 1954 but picked up the idea again in 1955, handing best novel to a famously bad novel They’d Rather Be Right. A more lasting innovation was the introduction of short-fiction categories for novelettes and short stories. An award for best fanzine was also given, which would also become a permanent category.
The term “Hugo Award” started as an unofficial nickname but by 1955 was already being used as the name for the rocket-shaped trophy by the organising committee . Even so, it would be many years until it became the formal name of the awards. From 1955 onwards, the awards were given out every year with a gradual development in rules, voting methods and categories. While the categories evolved the broad space of stories, magazines, artists and fan activities continued. Dramatic performances were folded into the mix of categories and many years later other media but the overall domain of the awards has remained fairly constant.
Despite the early stumble, the Hugo Awards garnered a reputation for awarding notable works of science fiction. Overt fantasy was less recognised and inevitably there were some significant works that the Hugo Awards ended up ignoring for multiple reasons (notably Lord of the Rings for various reasons). The finalists for the story categories (novel, novelette, short story) in 1956 is a veritable roll call of influential writers including Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Leigh Brackett, L. Sprague de Camp, C. L. Moore, Arthur C. Clarke, and Ray Bradbury.
An early feature of the Hugo Awards that added to their unusual character as a literary award, was the capacity for voters to simply reject all the finalists. The 1959 Worldcon voters chose to reject the choice of The Fly, Dracula and the Seventh Voyage of Sinbad for best SF film. More controversially, ‘ No Award’ also topped the poll for ‘Best New Author’ rejecting a field of nominees that included Brian Aldiss.
The 1950s and 1960s rolled on. Science Fiction and SF fandom continued to both reflect society and anticipate social change. Women were always a significant presence within fandom and as authors and yet often marginalised or invisible in published fiction. In a similar way, science fiction could produce in 1953 a positive depiction (albeit framed as a tragic twist) depiction of a gay man in Theodore Sturgeon’s short story The World Well Lost while more broadly avoiding the topic of sexuality altogether. The modal position of published science fiction and its leading edges are often remarkably different.
The multi-faceted nature of science fiction and science fiction fandom was not simply a function of a broad and intellectually curious community. Robert A. Heinlein won Hugo Awards for four novels. Three of them (Starship Troopers in 1960, Stranger in a Strange Land in 1962 and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress in 1967) have variously been characterised as a Fascist allegory, an inspiration for the 1960s counterculture and a manifesto for libertarians.
The range and nature of the people winning or being nominated for Hugo Awards also shifted during the 1960s. Even so, some things remained constant. John W Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction had damaged its reputation when Campbell used the magazine in 1950 to push the pseudo-scientific psychological theories of one of his writers, L. Ron Hubbard. Dianetics (a forerunner of what would become the Church of Scientology) may have alienated readers but Astounding continued to win Hugo Awards for Best Magazine and under its new name of Analog Science Fiction and Fact would publish many Hugo winning stories including in 1968 Anne McCaffrey’s novella Weyr Search that kicked off her nominally science fiction Pern series.
“The Great Breen Boondoggle”
[content warning for discussion of child abuse]
Fan controversies can often seem petty or even intentionally silly, an appearance reinforced by comical names given to protracted disputes. The ‘Breen Boondoggle’ or Breendoggle was not one of those.
In 1964 Walter Breen had become infamous among science fiction communities in Berkley, California as serial sexual abuser of children. In Alec Nevala-Lee’s account of events he describes the difficulty people had with trying to find a way to deal with Breen’s actions.
“In the meantime, the prominent fan Alva Rogers said that he felt “great reluctance” to exclude anyone from the community, and he had a novel solution to ensure the safety of his own children whenever Breen came to visit: “He wanted to protect his kids of course, but that the situation was adequately handled at his house by having them barricade themselves in their room.””https://nevalalee.wordpress.com/2018/12/05/the-bad-pennies-part-3/
With the Worldcon scheduled to be in California in 1964, organisers were concerned with whether to exclude Breen or not. The case for exclusion is clear but there were fears that if Breen was excluded then this would open up the possibility of much broader ranges of people being excluded and that exclusion might be ‘McCarthyite’. On a more practical level, organisers were concerned that Breen might sue for defamation if excluded (Breen would not be successfully prosecuted for his crimes until 1991). A further complication was Breen had recently married notable fan and author Marion Zimmer Bradley who was defending Breen’s reputation.
In the end, the decision was made to exclude Breen but the discussion had been seen as controversial. In particular, looking back on the events from the current era, it is notable how some accounts dwell on the potential damage to the reputation of the adults rather than the impact on the victims.
Many years later and in a wholly different context, game designer Michael Suileabhain-Wilson coined the idea of the five geek social fallacies  — common social-cognitive errors that fannish communities make that foster abusive circumstance. Walter Breen is an extreme example.
As well as broad social change, the culture of fandom was affected by other influences in the 1960s. The appearance of the TV show Star Trek in 1966 brought intelligent and entertaining science fiction to mainstream culture. In the 1967 Hugo Awards, three of the five finalists (and the one winner) were Trek episodes. Fans such as Bjo Trimble led a campaign to prevent the cancellation of the show after two seasons.
Science fiction fandom expanded in multiple directions as did the range of people winning awards. From the late sixties onwards there were always some women finalists in the main story categories and several winners. However, it wasn’t until the mid-1990s that there was an even split of gender in the finalist and even that didn’t last. Women had always participated in fandom but men often had control.
The 1960s and 1970s brought in new perspectives and shifts of topics within science fiction. Much of this came from the so-called New Wave authors but environmental issues and attempts to engage with non-Western cultures were also present in Frank Herbert’s Dune, originally serialised in Analog. Science fiction was broadening as a genre fueled in part by social change but also by fandom’s desire for novelty and authors experimenting with literary forms.
Film and television science fiction was also becoming more ambitious. Stanley Kubrik’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in collaboration with Arthur C Clarke presented a science fiction drama as serious cinema. Since the mid-60s the UK, the distinctly low-cost Doctor Who presented weird science fiction fantasy themes to a mass audience on a Saturday evening. The 1970s introduced Star Wars which spawned its own fandom, as well as associated comics and spin-off novelisation. The genre was expanding.
America’s space program, aided in part by Werner von Braun, fuelled by Cold War rivalry with the USSR eventually led to the 1969 moon landing. It was as if science fictional dreams were coming true. In the Hugo Awards the 1969 Best Dramatic Presentation for 2001: A Space Odyssey was followed in 1970 for an award for the news coverage of the very real Apollo 11 mission.
Advances in computer technology were also catching up with science fictional dreams. In the mid 70s computing technology was moving beyond universities and large business and beginning to become accessible to the general public. 1977 marked the release of the Apple ][ computer as well as computers from Commodore and Tandy that were affordable for semi-serious hobbyists. Developments since the 1960s in networking computers over large distances were also becoming more widely accessible. Likewise, electronic devices for gaming were being marketed to households and as a coin-operated machine. With limited and very abstract graphics, they were often accompanied by imaginative science-fictional titles and art, such as Space Invaders.
The 1980s brought more Star Wars, more computers and more video games. In the Hugo Awards, there was something of a changing of the guard. Many of the most notable from the golden age was drawing to the end of their careers. The 1983 finalist from Best Novel included works by Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein and Arthur C Clark, whereas Best Novella featured a later generation of writers such as Joanna Russ, Gene Wolfe, David Brin and George R R Martin.
Dianetics Strikes Back
Of the many writers that John W Campbell mentored, L Ron Hubbard chose the strangest path. After the initial success and backlash of Dianetics in the 1950s, Hubbard chose to re-imagine his pseudo-scientific psychological theories as a science fictional religion. The Church of Scientology grew over several decades but not without controversy and legal troubles. Allegations of cultish and abusive behaviour within Scientology have dogged the organisation.
Scientology intersected again with the Hugo Awards in the mid-1980s at around the same time that other notable authors championed by Campbell in the 40s and 50s were making their last appearances as finalists. A semi-serious suggestion was made to get L. Ron Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth a Hugo Award (he was still producing science fiction as well as operating his church) led to nothing. However, in 1987 there was a more organised attempt to win a Hugo for Hubbard who had died in 1986. The book, Black Genesis, had been published three months before Hubbard’s death and received enough nominations to be listed as a finalist. However, in the final voting, it was not only beaten by the other finalists but also received fewer votes than ‘no award’.
The year-earlier Hubbard had established his own science fiction writing contest. The Writers of the Future contest was intended to foster new talent and promote aspiring writers and has a notable list of writers attached to it .
Towards a New Century
Cheaper computing and connectivity led to new genres within science fiction (Cyberpunk) and new ways of fans interconnecting. Many fans were early adopters of computing technology and the 1980s saw fans using dial-up bulletin board systems (BBS) as ways of exchanging information or organising sub-groups of fans with niche interests.
BBSs were not only used by fan groups. The technology also provided other kinds of groups with non-mainstream interests to organise and spread information. Among the many sections of the population experimenting with online technology in the 1980s were far-right hate groups.
“While investigating the assassination of Denver radio talk show host Alan Berg by neonazi White supremacists, the FBI began to unravel hate group telecommunications by tapping the modem telephone line of Robert Miles.”https://www.researchforprogress.us/topic/when-hate-went-online/
The early 1990s brought the internet to many homes along with services such as CompuServe, Prodigy and AoL where people could organise their own interest groups. The capacity for fan groups to organise internationally and across time zones increased substantially.
Within the Hugo Awards the 1980s and 1990s saw more new writers and new works that would become influential and sources of debate. Notable winners include William Gibson (Neuromancer 1985), C. J. Cherryh (Cyteen 1989) and Connie Willis (Doomsday Book 1993). Author Orson Scott-Card would enjoy particular success winning two years in a row for his book Ender’s Game (1986) and its sequel Speaker for the Dead (1987), both published by the relatively new publisher Tor Books. The 90’s saw other (relatively) new publishers appearing in the list of winners of Best Novel including Lois McMaster Bujold’s Mirror Dance in 1996 published by Baen Books.
The arrival of the World Wide Web in the 1990s allowed even greater capacity for people to engage with other fans but also for media companies to promote films, games and books.
A political coda
In US politics the 1990s were dominated by the two-term presidency of Bill Clinton, the first US presidency of a post-cold war. For those of us with a tendency toward narrative disorder, it was if the big story arc of the twentieth century had passed its finale but the next major plot line hadn’t been worked out yet. Genuine fears about how information technology might fuel a more powerful state were held by political commentators on both left and right. America was now the dominant military super-power but it’s economic hegemony had been increasingly challenged by Japan, South Korea and China.
The broad popularity of Bill Clinton and third party challenges by Ross Perot (and later his Reform Party) had proven difficult for the Republican Party to overcome in Presidential elections. However, Clinton’s record of sexual harassment had led to numerous scandals that had enabled the Republican Party to do well in mid-term elections.
The web helped fuel the spread of numerous conspiracy theories about President Clinton, supported by talk-radio and the new (launched in 1996) conservative cable news channel Fox News. Chief among those theories was the notorious so-called ‘Clinton Kill List’ — a perpetually growing list of people supposedly murdered at the orders of Bill Clinton or his wife Hillary (or even his mother ).
The bungled law enforcement operation at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco Texas in 1993 led to the deaths of 76 people (including 25 children). Among many right-wing communities, the event was perceived as a military assault on gun-owning Christians by the Federal Government rather than a symptom of the systemic overuse of lethal force by law enforcement groups in the USA.
On April 19, 1995, two anti-government terrorists used a van packed with explosives to blow up a federal building in Oklahoma City . The blast would kill 168 and injure hundreds of others. The terrorists, active in gun shows and inspired by the White Nationalist dystopian fantasy novel The Turner Diaries, sought to gain revenge for the deaths at Waco.
The Oklahoma City bombing at that point, was the deadliest terrorist attack on US soil.
Next Time: Our first adventure into Chapter Fives and a look at the first of actors in this play: John Scalzi.
-  https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/1330615
-  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Verein_f%C3%BCr_Raumschiffahrt The extent to which we might regard it as a fannish group now, is a different argument but Moskowitz did.
-  https://fancyclopedia.org/First_Staple_War I was wholly unaware of this until recently and I think the whole thing is wonderful
-  https://www.starburstmagazine.com/features/history-worldcon and https://nevalalee.wordpress.com/2016/07/27/days-of-futurians-past/
-  https://fancyclopedia.org/N3F#Early_1940s, http://n3f.org/about/history/
-  http://n3f.org/about/history/ and http://n3f.org/about/bureaus-and-activities/
-  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Sharpe_Shaver
-  There is no shortage of modern usages of this term for Worldcon (i.e. post 2000) but the implication is that is an old sobriquet. I can’t find an early citation for this usage. For the moment Jo Walton’s 2008 piece is the reference https://www.tor.com/2008/08/08/worldcon1/ which is infinitely better than the 12th reference Google offered me https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2017/08/26/worldcon-report-from-timothy-the-talking-cat/ that bloody cat!
-  https://nevalalee.wordpress.com/2016/03/30/astounding-stories-3-the-legion-of-time/
-  https://www.tor.com/2010/10/31/hugo-nominees-1955/ To quote Jo Walton “But the good news is, nobody has to argue about what the worst book to win the Hugo is. Ever. I’ve been in Hugo loser parties where people aren’t happy with what’s won, and then somebody mentions They’d Rather Be Right and we all cheer up, because at least it’s better than that.”
-  https://fanac.org/conpubs/Worldcon/Clevention/1955%20-%20Clevention%20-%20PR%204.pdf#view=Fit A great deal of hard work, money and time went into the project of making this “Hugo” , as some people have already dubbed the trophy
-  https://thewertzone.blogspot.com/2020/08/why-jrr-tolkien-never-won-hugo-award.html
-  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hugo_Award_for_Best_Dramatic_Presentation#1958%E2%80%932002
-  https://www.tor.com/2010/11/28/hugo-nominees-1959/
-  https://nevalalee.wordpress.com/2018/05/22/the-doctors-dilemma/
-  https://nevalalee.wordpress.com/2018/12/05/the-bad-pennies-part-3/ all four parts are worth reading but contain disturbing information
-  http://plausiblydeniable.com/five-geek-social-fallacies/
-  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bjo_Trimble and https://intl.startrek.com/article/bjo-trimble-the-woman-who-saved-star-trek-part-1
-  http://www.scottedelman.com/2015/04/06/in-which-the-sad-puppies-prove-to-be-more-powerful-than-l-ron-hubbard/#more-19137
-  https://www.writersofthefuture.com/about-the-contest/
-  https://en.wikifur.com/wiki/1980s
-  http://www.eruditorumpress.com/blog/idsg-ep79-tom-metzger-part-2-the-origins-of-online-hate/ links to the IDSG podcast covering this topic and contains further useful links
-  https://firesidefiction.com/narrative-disorder
-  https://web.archive.org/web/20140515041409/https://www.nytimes.com/1997/02/23/magazine/clinton-crazy.html and https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/clinton-body-bags/
-  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waco_siege
-  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oklahoma_City_bombing
-  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Turner_Diaries