Some Thoughts on Who Was Really #1

By Rich Lynch: It was 80 years ago that an extraordinary event took place.

It happened on January 3, 1937, in the English city of Leeds.  It was there that a group of science fiction fans gathered for what has been described as the first-ever science fiction convention.

Walter Gillings, Arthur Clarke, and Ted Carnell
at the 1937 Leeds convention.

What records remain of the event indicate there were fourteen people in attendance, several of whom would go on to become luminaries of the science fiction literary genre: Ted Carnell, Walter Gillings, Eric Frank Russell, and Arthur C. Clarke.  It was a single-day conference, hosted by the Leeds branch of the newly-formed world-wide Science Fiction League of fan organizations.  The day featured speeches and testimonials on various topics related to science fiction and after that, group discussions on “ways and means of improving British science fiction” according to a one-off fanzine published soon afterwards which reported on the proceedings.  What resulted was the formation of the Science Fiction Association, a proto-British fan organization centered around the “four Hells” fan clubs in Leeds, Liverpool, London, and Leicester.  It only lasted about two years, due to the onset of the Second World War, but it did set the stage for a permanent organization, the British Science Fiction Association, which eventually came into existence in the 1950s.

That 1937 convention was truly a seminal event, and it helped pave the way toward the promulgation of science fiction fandom throughout the United Kingdom.  But was it really the first science fiction convention?

Maybe not.

Donald Wollheim, Milton Rothman, Fred Pohl, John Michel, and Will Sykora at the
1936 Philadelphia convention.

On October, 22, 1936, about half a dozen fans from New York City traveled by train to Philadelphia, where they convened for several hours at the home of one of the fans there.  In all, there were a similar number of fans brought together as for the Leeds convention.  What made it a convention, in the minds of its attendees, was that a business meeting was held with the host, Milton Rothman, being elected Chairman.  Fred Pohl, who had been designated the Secretary, took the minutes and then subsequently lost them.  But Pohl later stated that no recordable business had been brought up because the event had only been informal in nature, with fans talking to fans about things like which books they had recently read, which authors they liked, and what they hoped these authors would write next.  The most significant outcome was that everyone had such a good time that a follow-up event was held in New York in February 1937 with about 40 fans attending.  This created the momentum for an even bigger event, a bit more than two years later which was held in New York on July 4, 1939 – the first World Science Fiction Convention.

Those first two fan gatherings have been a source of continuing controversy ever since then.  Which one was really #1?  The Leeds convention was the better planned of the two, with groundwork laid for the event several months earlier – the Philadelphia convention was, according to accounts from several fans attended it, mostly spur-of-the-moment with little advance preparation.  There has been speculation that the only reason that the Philadelphia event occurred at all was because of one-upsmanship.  The idea for that gathering was originally put forth by New York fan Don Wollheim, who back then had gained the reputation for being quarrelsome, antagonistic, and more than a bit provocative.  It’s very possible, even likely, that he knew of the upcoming Leeds event, which had been talked up not only throughout Britain but also in some U.S. prozines.  So, supposing the underlying reason for the Philadelphia meet-up was really only to sabotage any Leeds stake to being the first science fiction convention, should that disqualify Philadelphia’s claim for that distinction?

No, that’s insufficient.  There have been other conventions that have been organized on little more than a moment’s notice and in any event, overall intent is irrelevant – you can hold a convention for any purpose you want.  A much better reason for possibly honoring Leeds as #1 is that the Philadelphia event was an invitational gathering not open to the general public, with only the New York and Philadelphia fan clubs involved.  But this, too, does not hold very much water as there have subsequently been other, in effect, invitation-only conventions, including the very first DeepSouthCon.  And one other criticism of the Philadelphia event’s claim for being #1 is that there was “no recordable business”, very little reportage after the fact, and indeed, not even a program.  But this is the weakest argument of all, and one only has to point toward the annual Midwestcon conventions, which also have none of these, as a refutation.

And so the controversy has lingered for all this time.  The 1936 Philadelphia event was first chronologically, but was it a convention or just a meeting?  In the end there probably will never be a consensus – after eight decades this is still perhaps the most polarizing topic in all of science fiction fandom, at least from a historical perspective, and people will believe what they want to believe.  But there have at least been attempts at finding some middle ground.  Noted fan historian Mark Olson, in Fancyclopedia 3, has suggested that: “Perhaps it would be fairest to say that the first thing that could be called a convention was held in Philadelphia in 1936, while the first thing that must be called a convention was held in Leeds in 1937.”  And he’s right.

But as for me, I think we are asking the wrong question.  What we instead should be inquiring is: “Who first came up with the idea for staging a science fiction convention?”  That’s really the more important aspect, and the Leeds group was first.  There’s serendipity that they held their event at the Leeds Theosophical Society – the word ‘theosophy’ parses to ‘divine wisdom’, which is an apt description of the concept for the science fiction convention.  And of that, at least, we can be absolutely certain!

Once More into the Breach

There’s one day to go before the Hugo nominating deadline and James Nicoll has sounded a final trumpet blast on behalf of Fred Pohl for Best Fan Writer.

As a roaring controversy the question “Is Fred Pohl a fan?” is an utter failure. Everyone answers “Yeppers.” “Yeah.” “Yes.” “Sure.” “You betcha.” “Sí.” “Ja.” “Da.” Me too. And is Pohl’s blog is fan writing?  That was never in dispute, unfortunately the deafening agreement made it hard to hear my real point, which was encouraging people to make generous and creative choices when filling in their Hugo nominating ballot, giving preference to fans who, unlike Fred, aren’t Hugo-winning novelists, past Worldcon pro guests of honor or former presidents of SFWA.

In a comment below Patrick Nielsen Hayden noted that pros have been writing breezy, personal nonfiction since the Stone Age (well, the days of lithographed fanzines anyway) without swamping the Best Fan Writer category. Patrick, offering Orson Scott Card as an example, supposed that in spite of Card’s large online following he had never been a Best Fan Writer nominee “possibly because his online work doesn’t strike many people as ‘fan writing.'”

There are a lot of popular pros who’ve never appeared on people’s Best Fan Writer ballots. Was that because nobody thought any of them were doing quality fannish writing?

Many wrote for fanzines. With the maturing of the internet in the Nineties they launched forums on GEnie, Delphi, Compuserve, The Well, etc., some of them with large numbers of loyal followers. Now many are active bloggers and have created other kinds of online communities.

Consider one example. Mike Resnick has had an online forum, keeps an e-mail news list, and has written numerous great articles for Hugo-contending fanzines Mimosa and Challenger.  Over the same period of time he’s been doing those things, John Flynn and Jeff Berkwits racked up 5 Best Fan Writer nominations between them. Resnick could win a fanwriting duel against either of them typing with his earlobes! I’m guessing if Resnick had asked he could easily have gotten on the ballot as a Best Fan Writer nominee.

Generally, pro writers don’t ask for this. That has allowed more people who are “only” fan writers a chance to compete for a Hugo.

Why don’t more professional writers pursue a Best Fan Writer nomination? Maybe they think the awards deserve to be given to people primarily identified as active fans. Maybe they don’t want to risk the bad publicity. Maybe some feel it is beneath their professional dignity. Maybe the fan Hugos simply hold no charm for them.

At any rate this is not a neutral subject. Is it honoring Fred Pohl to thrust him into this situation without ascertaining his feelings about it? His blog contains not a word about the idea. But the very fact that he is a fan of decades standing, a veteran writer and editor and a leader in the sf community, makes it likely he has an opinion.  

Now it might be, “Tell Glyer to take a hike, I’d love to have a Best Fan Writer Hugo, God bless you for thinking of me!”

But it might not.

Snapshots 23

Here are a dozen developments of interest to fans:

(1) You don’t expect this from Locus, let alone a mundane paper, so how surprising is it that Ottawa Citizen editorialist Kate Heartfield devoted a recent column to the importance of Worldcon members voting for the Hugos?

[If] history is any guide, only a few hundred WorldCon participants will actually vote for the Hugos.

I don’t get that. So many literary awards are chosen by inscrutable juries and panels. The Hugos are — or at least have the potential to be — truly democratic. Not only do WorldCon members get to choose among the nominees; we also got to nominate them in the first place.

(2) Fred Pohl posted some very interesting observations about his late collaborator Cyril Kornbluth on The Way the Future Blogs:

Unfortunately Cyril’s health was deteriorating. Partly this was due to the quantities of coffee, cigarettes, hot pastrami sandwiches and alcohol he had been ingesting since his teens, but mostly it was due to the war.

(3) Want to see what the Hugo logo contest is inspiring? Fasten your seat-belt and click on this link to see California blogger Wendell Wittler’s suggestion:

When the lovely and/or talented John Scalzi mentioned that the Hugo Awards are staging a competition for a logo design, I was inspired to jump in head first. Now, I do not claim to be a good visual artist (which is why I own the domain name PhotoSlop.com which I will be putting to some use soon). But a few moments pondering about the prestigious awards for a class of massively imaginative writers and looking at the design of the award trophy (a shiny metal retro-style rocket with relatively little phallic resemblance) and I had an extremely cool idea.

(4) Francis Hamit was interviewed on Elise Cooper’s new program “The Book Stops Here” on April 19 about The Shenandoah Spy, of course, and also a little bit about self-publishing.  Programs are archived, so you can easily listen in anytime.

(5) Diana and Sierra recently visited Virginia. While on the road, Diana visited with a group of C. S. Lewis fans:

On April 9th, I had the pleasure of meeting with the Harrisonburg C. S. Lewis Society at their local Barnes & Noble. The group, founded by Will Vaus, was attentive and lively- we had a terrific evening.

This is from Diana’s new blog now, and the post includes photos.

(6) Lex Berman thinks fandom’s Secret Masters might glean something useful out of  the stats for DrupalCon, the recent “unconference” for Drupal users and developers held in Washington, D.C. 

(7) TMZ.com reported that the late Majel Roddenberry made sure her dogs would  “live long and prosper after her death” by willing them the right to live in one of her mansions and setting up a $4 million residential trust to maintain the place in style.

And no, her son Eugene Roddenberry Jr. was not neglected in favor of the dogs. He got a mansion plus many more millions of his own.

(8) Reporters calling this archeological find a “hobbit” haven’t fooled Andrew Porter. He observes that the “article doesn’t mention hairy feet or proclivity to drink a lot (nor ring-wearing)”:

A “hobbit” will be making its public debut on Tuesday [April 21] at Stony Brook University on Long Island. A cast of the skull and bones of the hominid Homo floresiensis, its diminutive size inspiring the hobbit nickname, will be displayed for the first time at a public symposium on human evolution, titled “Hobbits in the Haystack.”

(9) You think your fanac is expensive? Try building a working model of the Saturn V:

On April 25, 2009, history will be made. At Higgs Farm in Price, Maryland, Steve Eves will enter the history books as the person who flew the largest model rocket in history. The rocket will weigh over 1,600 pounds, it will stand over 36 feet tall and it will be powered by a massive array of nine motors: eight 13,000ns N-Class motors and a 77,000ns P-Class motor. The estimated altitude of this single stage effort will be between 3,000 and 4,000 feet and the project will be recovered at apogee.

The fuel price alone, including the motor cases, will exceed $13,000.

(10) Garth Spencer’s Royal Swiss Navy Gazette #17 has been posted at eFanzines. It’s a very ambitious issue:

In this issue…the RSN presents a solution for violence in the Near East, the Elder Ghods submit a suit against Microsoft, I reveal what I learned from cop shows (and police news), and Taral Wayne tells us all about furry fandom.

(11) There’s lots to know about the Iron Man movie sequel:

Now, with director Jon Favreau in the grip of a full-fledged Twitter addiction, we may end up knowing more than we really want to…. According to Favreau’s tweets, American comedian Garry Shandling is in the film, although no-one seems to know who he’s playing. Not even Shandling.

David Klaus says the real comedy gold comes after the end of the article. “Be sure to read all the ‘Douglas Urbanski’-related comments,” he advises.

(12) John Crace has contributed an insightful post about J. G. Ballard to the Guardian‘s “Book Blog”:

Critics often used to comment on the contrast between the prim suburban order of Shepperton, where Jim Ballard lived for the past 50 years or so, and the dark, dystopian worlds of his writing. Which rather missed the point. For Ballard was one of those increasingly rare writers who actually had a life before writing.

[Thanks to Geri Sullivan, Andrew Porter, David Klaus, Francis Hamit, Chaos Manor, Garth Spencer and Lex Berman for the links included in this post.]

Oh, You Have One of Those, Too

I noticed Cheryl Morgan agreeing with Hugo-winner John Scalzi:

You were probably wise to ship it home, though we had all been looking forward to you trying to take it through security.

I packed mine in my suitcase, and TSA did indeed leave one of their calling cards letting me know they searched the bag before letting it on the plane. The contents seemed little disturbed, however, as if the search had only been done out of a sense of obligation, because you could never explain to a Congressional committee that there really was no need to check something that looked like a mortar round on the x-ray screen.

The Hugo I brought home from Australia in 1985 was packed in my carry-on and I lightheartedly wondered how much explaining I’d have to do when I walked through the metal detector. None, as it turned out. The security guard smiled and said, “Oh, you have one of those too.” I was deflated, and didn’t bother to answer Sure, fella, a tourist practically can’t get out of Australia without somebody forcing one of these on him. The real explanation proved to be that Fred Pohl and Charlie Brown had taken their Hugos through the same security checkpoint just before I arrived.