Noreascon Three marked the 50th Anniversary of the first World SF Convention, held in New York in 1939, by hosting a Sunday brunch that featured testimonials from every fannish generation, including from several people who had been to the original Worldcon (and one who had been thrown out of it!)
I asked Ellen Franklin of Noreascon Three’s Extravaganza Division what she recalled about organizing the brunch. Ellen answered:
What I do remember is that my team and I tried to create memorable moments, events where people could share in a heart based way and feel they had a voice, that what they said truly mattered. I still feel that way when people gather together, the most important thing is to create a true sense of community.
As I recall speaking order was definitely arranged and the event was loosely scripted to create diversity of comments–we also had Arthur C. Clarke from Sri Lanka I believe on audio perhaps with a photo of him. Hard to remember if it were today we would have used Skype. Jim Hudson remembers we also wanted everyone from the old pros, to fans, and newbies to talk about what the World Con meant to them or how their lives had been influenced, etc. It was incredibly important to me that these be heart based and meaningful and not ego driven, and I found a way to politely ask this of people when they were invited to speak…and somehow it all worked.
Breakfast With The Timebinders by Mike Glyer: Watching Noreascon’s Sunday Brunch unfold I thought: there may be other days like this but there won’t be many, and the ones we do have are to be cherished.
Isaac Asimov1, an appropriate “first speaker,” set the theme: “This is the fiftieth anniversary [of the first Worldcon] so this is a nostalgic brunch.” Asimov attended the first one and sounded less embarrassed than proud that he had not been turned back at the door with six other Futurian rabble-rousers2. Indeed, Asimov told the 1939 audience “I was the worst science fiction writer unhung.” Asimov said he’d refreshed his memory of 1939 by reading the Panshins’ The World Beyond The Hill, which chronicles the ascendancy of Campbell (and presumably Asimov) in the golden age of Astounding.
With the house lights down and Asimov standing in a spotlight, the barrage of flash photography may have helped record the golden moment for some at the expense of others seeing it at all. Though slow to come, an emphatic order against all flashes was crucial to the precious moments that followed. For the rest of the program attention moved around the room as spotlights focused on speakers at different tables, building emotional momentum as long-time pros and fans spoke about the impact of science fiction and its Worldcons on their lives.
Asimov’s spotlight flicked off and a second one found Dave Kyle3 at a nearby table. Said Kyle, “Science fiction has not changed my life – science fiction is my life.” Kyle credited Forry Ackerman for his introduction to science fiction. As a 16-year-old Kyle sold his first sf story to Charles Hornig4, who at that moment was seated at Dave’s table. (Hornig’s magazine folded before the story saw print.) Kyle said, like Asimov, he also was admitted to the first Worldcon only because Sam Moskowitz didn’t realize that the Futurians’ controversial publications had been printed by him. When Kyle married, he bragged, he had 53 people on his honeymoon – a charter flight to the first Worldcon in London.
Betty Ballantine5 remembered as a child reading Dracula late at night in the jungle of India by lantern light with jackals howling and birds making weird sounds. As an adult she remembered the friendships she made in sf, working with the people she most admired.
Jack Williamson6 recalled, “In 1926 I was 18, had gotten out of a country high school with actually six years of schooling, had no job,” but in 1926 he saw Gernsback’s Amazing Stories and can still recite its table of contents. “I read that and I was born again.” With a borrowed typewriter he started writing his own sf, and next year Gernsback began buying it.
Terry Pratchett7 recalled that at newsstands in Britain the good magazines were on the top shelf and sf was on the bottom shelf, from which he argued the shortness of old British sf fans was a matter of natural selection. More seriously, Pratchett said he learned from sf that mathematics was actually interesting, which no one else was telling him. “Good old sf – whenever I’ve needed you, you’ve always been there.”
Andre Norton8 was wheeled from the brunch to a standing ovation. Then the spotlight picked out Kees Van Toorn9, 30-ish chairman of the 1990 Worldcon in Holland. Kees invoked the name of Mario Bosnyak, who brought the Worldcon to Heidelberg, its first and only time in mainland Europe [to that time], and Kees’ own first Worldcon.
Gregory Benford10 also went to his first convention in Germany, but 14 years earlier, in 1956. Benford’s father was in the Army and stationed there. Benford and his brother both had to learn a foreign language. “I had to learn English – because I’m from Alabama.” Greg’s first Worldcon was Pacificon II (1964) in Oakland. He also went to the next Bay Area Worldcon in 1968. “It’s aptly been said that if you remember BayCon you weren’t there.” BayCon was held in the Claremont “where the rooms were so small we were told not to complain to the hotel management but to the humane society.” Benford, a professor of physics, said, “It’s impossible to convey what it’s like to do science and write science fiction – great freedom of movement.”
Jane Yolen11 cast her remarks in rhyming doggerel, one a couplet expressing her wish that “A fantasy book would at last win the Hugo.” Her wish was loudly applauded by everyone who has forgotten Jack Vance’s Hugo for The Last Castle.
Forrest J Ackerman12 began to recount his life in science fiction at sufficient length and with so many examples present time seem to have lost all meaning for him until, with a gleam in his eye, Forry concluded, “You can see in my 50 years of science fiction I’ve accomplished about as much as in a lazy afternoon for Isaac Asimov.”
Mike Resnick’s13 implied comparison between the community he and Carol found at the 1963 Worldcon and the present was like a bolt of lightning. Attendance at Discon I was 600. Rooms were $8 apiece. The banquet was held in the afternoon because nobody could afford the evening rates, and even so the $3 charge almost caused a riot. The most expensive piece sold in the Art Show was a cover by Frazetta that went for $70, a price so high fans doubted it would ever be equaled. The pros wrote and performed a play for the benefit for the fans. Writers thought they could make $7,500 a year – if Robert Silverberg ever stopped selling 30 stories a month. The huckster room sold only books and magazines. Fans who read sf outnumbered those who didn’t. Resnick said that now he comes to the Worldcon mostly for business, but there is still that sense of community he found in 1963.
Japan’s Takumi Shibano14 published the fanzine Uchuujin (“space dust”), credited with the birth of Japanese fandom. He said, “Nationality doesn’t matter now. I just think of myself as a fan.” In 1939 when he read H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds it reconstructed his view of the world. “The idea that humanity might not be the lords of creation shocked this junior high school boy.”
Hal Clement15 was a fan who became a science teacher and aspired to write a sf story with no science errors. He’s been trying for 48 years, just like for 40 years he tried to write a chemistry test where all the students would interpret every question as he meant it.
Artist Richard Powers16 introduced himself tongue-in-cheek as “one of Betty Ballantine’s more recent inventions.” Powers styled himself a veteran of the “rack space wars” who worked at Hearst “wielding a baseball bat” when Ian Ballantine brought him over to their team of ruffians to work with Fred Pohl “who favored a length of lead pipe.”
Rather than a spotlight for Arthur C. Clarke17 there was a slide of his image beamed out at a large screen in front of the hall as he spoke in a recorded phone call from Sri Lanka. He began, “Science fiction didn’t affect my life, it created my life.” Clarke spoke fondly of the genre, but didn’t forget to needle Isaac Asimov.
Michael Whelan’s18 painful shyness and self-effacement hindered his start in the genre. He would never have approached a Frazetta or a Freas for an appraisal of his work, “Even though it’s exactly what I needed at the time.” He didn’t respect the opinion of those “outside the business” while at the same time he assumed those in the business of fantasy art would be too busy, or his work would be too embarrassing. In 1974, Whelan’s casual discovery of a San Diego Comic-Con flyer moved him to show his work. When he came back at the end of the weekend, he was amazed to find all his work had sold – of course, the asking price was $15. A volunteer agented his artwork at the 1974 Worldcon. Anxiously he waited for the results and learned over the phone one painting had won Best SF – in the professional division! He soon had his first paperback cover assignment from DAW. It all happened in the space of a month-and-a-half.
Samuel Delany19 went by Greyhound to his first Worldcon in 1966, only $36 in his pocket to get him through an entire weekend in Cleveland. He wound up in a room for $4.50 a night. Delany remembers 3,000 people at the con (the record shows 850) emphasizing how lonely he felt among a crowd of people he didn’t know and didn’t know him. A 15-year-old who’d been to three cons took him in hand and introduced him to lots of folks. After four hours the kid asked Delany what he did for a living. “I write sf.” The kid was delighted, “Wow – you’re a pro! And here I am showing you around the convention.” Just last year the kid published Delany’s Hugo-winning nonfiction book.
Frederik Pohl20 said, “Science fiction changed my life…. It gave me a profession. The best kind. I do all the things I like, that I would do for nothing – and people give me money for it.” As Pohl waxed nostalgic about the 1939 Worldcon one began to wonder which Futurians actually got excluded from the con. Pohl claimed even he got in – at least until Wil Sykora saw him and threw him out. Pohl claims that was no great loss. He went to the bar next door and found all the pros in there.
Emma Bull21 remembered as a college student she passed her time in a clinic waiting room by reading Foundation. Another girl asked, “Is that good? My boyfriend has been trying to get me to read it.” Emma knew, “She was really asking, ‘Is my boyfriend okay?’” Looking straight at Isaac Asimov, Emma repeated her answer: “I allowed as how the Foundation Trilogy was pretty good.” The audience gasped with laughter. The girl and her boyfriend visited Emma that very night. The boyfriend sat with Emma in front of the bookshelf comparing notes on what they’d read. The boyfriend was Will Shetterly, and borrowing a line Emma concluded, “Reader – I married him!”
Said Art Widner22, “Like so many fen, I was the Old Weird Harold on my block, carrying home those lurid pulp magazines with nubile bimbos on the cover wearing VW hubcap bras – which was remarkable because Volkswagen hadn’t been invented yet.” Widner said like Voyager 2 after 10 years he had explored the local system, science fiction fandom, and went to see what lay beyond. “Thirty-five years later I came back to report: it’s pretty lonely out there.” He returned to fandom as an “eo-neo” and bumped into Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden “who knew who I was – or rather, had been.”
The spotlight found the last speaker in the center aisle, diminutive Anita Raj23, who told her story: “This is my first Worldcon. A month ago I was a simple mundane and wandered into a work session for this convention.” She collated, stapled and mailed, and wound up with a radio and a beeper in charge of a gang of teamsters during Hynes set-up. “Don’t even try, because you can’t get rid of me now.”
Fans with longer memories than mine had probably identified with and been moved by all that had gone before, but for me it was Anita Raj who put the exclamation point at the end of the story and brought tears to my eyes.
Tears were probably in Isaac Asimov’s eyes, too – for having to wait so long to top Arthur C. Clarke’s dig at him. Payback time came during Asimov’s closing remarks.
“About six weeks ago there was an airplane crash in an Iowa cornfield24 which a hundred people survived. Others unfortunately died. Newspapers reported that one of the survivors was reading an Arthur C. Clarke novel before the crash. When Arthur saw that he immediately had 750 copies made, which he mailed to 750 friends, acquaintances and strangers.” As a postscript to Asimov’s copy Clarke wrote, “He should have been reading an Asimov novel: he would have slept through the whole thing.” Asimov huffed, “I wrote back to Arthur that the reason he was reading a Clarke novel was so that if the plane crashed it would be a blessed relief!”
1. Isaac Asimov lived less than three more years, passing away in April 1992. Later that same year his story “Gold” won the Best Novelette Hugo. During his career he wrote or edited over 500 books. Paul Krugman, Nobel laureate in economics, credits Asimov’s concept of psychohistory with inspiring him to become an economist.
2. Futurian rabble-rousers. An ironic description. The Futurians were at feud with the other New York fans who were the main organizers of the first Worldcon and refused to let them attend.
3. Dave Kyle is still with us. In Mimosa #17, “I Miss the Banquets”, Kyle wrote: “A joyful revival of the banquet came at Noreascon Three, in 1989, with a luncheon honoring Guest of Honor Andre Norton. She sat in her wheelchair between my wife Ruth and me, and received a standing applause of appreciation as she rolled out of the room in the glare of the spotlight. It was an excellent reminder of the tradition that had once been. With Isaac Asimov as toastmaster, the dozen brief speeches on the theme of what science fiction and fandom meant to each speaker was a powerful moment for a memorable convention.”
4. Charles Hornig created one of the first fanzines in 1933, and became the teen-aged managing editor of Wonder Stories from November 1933 to April 1936. He lived until 1999.
5. Betty Ballantine, born 1919, is still alive. She was given a World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement in 2007 and the Ballantines were both inducted by the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2008, with a shared citation.
6. Jack Williamson received a World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1994. He was part of the inaugural class of inductees to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame in 1996. The Horror Writers Association gave him its Bram Stoker Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1998. The World Horror Convention elected him Grand Master in 2004. Jack died in 2006 at home in New Mexico at age 98. A great deal of his work remains in print thanks to the Haffner Press.
7. Terry Pratchett was knighted for his services to literature in the 2009 Queens’ New Year Honours list. The title acknowledged not only his literary output — 36 novels in the Discworld series alone – but his service as a public spokesman for research into Alzheimer’s since being diagnosed with the disease.
8. Andre Norton, despite her frailties, lived until 2005. She was the first woman to be Gandalf Grand Master of Fantasy (1977), first to be SFWA Grand Master (1984), and first inducted by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame (1997).
9. Van Toorn chaired ConFiction the following year (1990), which was the second Worldcon held in mainland Europe. There hasn’t been another yet.
10. Gregory Benford, a Professor Emeritus, Physics & Astronomy, of UC Irvine, two-time Nebula winner, writes frequently about science policy and cultural topics. His latest sf output includes two novels in collaboration with Larry Niven, Bowl of Heaven and Shipstar.
11. Jane Yolen has won two Nebulas since that afternoon (1998 and 1999), received a World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement (2009) and been named a Grand Master Poet by the SF Poetry Association. She lives in Massachusetts. And despite my tart comment in 1989, these days I agree with everyone else that The Last Castle was sf. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was the first fantasy novel to win a Hugo (2001).
12. Forrest J Ackerman survived to celebrate his 92nd birthday, then passed away on December 4, 2008. Even minus the items separately sold to Paul Allen, the auction of collectibles remaining in his estate fetched over a quarter million dollars.
13. Mike Resnick, who won his first Hugo at Noreascon Three, now has won a total of five. He’s also won a raft of other awards (including a Nebula), one of them a Seiun for the Japanese translation of the same story that won him his first Hugo – “Kirinyaga” (2000). He was Worldcon guest of honor in 2012.
14. Takumi Shibano, an internationally beloved fan, was twice Worldcon guest of honor: at L.A.con III (1996) and Nippon 2007. He passed away in 2010.
15. Harry Stubbs, aka Hal Clement, aka artist George Richard, was inducted to the SF Hall of Fame in 1998 and was named a SFWA Grand Master Award in 1999. He received a Retro Hugo Award in 1996 for his 1945 short story “Uncommon Sense.” He passed away in 2003.
16. Richard Powers, inducted by the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2008, also was Worldcon guest of honor at MagiCon (1992). He lived until 1996.
17. Arthur C. Clarke received a CBE in 1989 and was knighted in 2000. He died in 2008 and his legacy includes the award named for him that is given to the best British sf novel of the year, and the Arthur C. Clarke Center for the Human Imagination at UC San Diego.
18. At Noreascon 3, Michael Whelan tied Kelly Freas’ mark of 10 Best Professional Artist Hugos and to date he has won a total of 15. Whelan was inducted to the SF Hall of Fame in 2009.
19. Samuel Delany was inducted to the SF Hall of Fame in 2002 and was presented the SFWA Grand Master Award in 2014. He was Worldcon guest of honor at Intersection (1995). He is a Professor of English and Creative Writing at Temple University in Philadelphia.
20. Frederik Pohl was selected to the SF Hall of Fame in 1998 and was given the SFWA Grand Master Award in 1993. He came full circle, in a way, winning a Best Fan Writer Hugo in 2009 largely for his autobiographical posts on The Way The Future Blogs. He passed away in 2013.
21. Emma Bull’s credits include serving as Executive Producer and one of the writers for Shadow Unit. Bull and Shetterly live in Minneapolis.
22. Art Widner, who won a Big Heart Award at Noreascon Three, received the First Fandom Hall of Fame Award in 1992. Impressively, he is still an active fan today.
23. Anita Raj is on Facebook. I was not successful in getting a comment about the anniversary.
24. Asimov had in mind the crash landing of United Airlines Flight 232 in Sioux City six weeks earlier, where 111 died in the accident while 185 survived, their survival attributed to the outstanding manner in which the flight crew handled the emergency. The events later became a TV Movie with Charlton Heston, James Coburn and Richard Thomas.