Thumbs Up for Mr. Sardonicus

By John Hertz: (reprinted from Vanamonde 1270)  Marching to a different drummer can be particularly awkward on the road with a stream of dissenters all keeping step.  Milt Stevens didn’t bother to complain (1942-2017).

He was honored, selected, and unrecognized.  He co-chaired L.A.con II (42nd World Science Fiction Convention, 1984), the largest ever and one of the best – not the same thing.  He chaired Westercon XXXIII (West Coast Science Fantasy Conference, 1980) and was Fan Guest of Honor at Westercon LXI.  He chaired Loscon I (our local con, 1975) and was Fan GoH at Loscon IX.  He ran the Fanzine Lounge at Westercon LV and L.A.con IV (64th Worldcon).  He ran programming at Corflu XXXIV (fanziners’ con, 2017; corflu = mimeograph correction fluid, once indispensable).

He was one of the finest fanwriters in the world, in his own zine The Passing Parade and elsewhere.  We never put him on the Hugo ballot.

His sense of humor was often called dry.  I might call it sandy.  It could polish you.

For a while he used the handle “Mr. Sardonicus” (and his zine for SAPS, the Spectator Amateur Press Ass’n, was Sardonicus).  The title character in William Castle’s 1961 movie Mr. Sardonicus got his face frozen in a horrifying grin.  Glow-in-the-dark cards with Thumbs Up and Thumbs Down had been distributed to the audience.  Near the end the director appeared on-screen asking for votes in a Punishment Poll.  No instance is known in which the thumbs-up ending was shown.  Some say it was never filmed.

Properly the sardonic aims at self-relief when one can do nothing else against adversity.  His blade was better pointed than that.  Presumably the name appealed to his fannish self-deprecation.  In leaving the unobservant to suppose his remarks were moved by pessimism perhaps he was sardonic.

Like many people who can write, he could read.  “We need men round us who can think and who can talk” (G. de Maupassant, “The Horla”, 1887); he was there too.

This lit up his letters of comment.  Comments are the blood of an apa, and more generally letters of comment are the blood of a fanzine.  Best are those whose authors show they have in fact read (and not, say, merely jerked a knee at) what they are commenting on.  He was there too.

I’ll tell one book story.  At cons I’ve been leading Classics of S-F talks; often I pick the classics; at Loscon XLI in 2014 one was The Stars My Destination (A. Bester, 1957).  Regency dancing (see e.g. Mimosa 29) was scheduled on Friday at 4 p.m., Stars at 2:30, so I had to conduct it in costume; couldn’t get my neckcloth right – “Beau” Brummell (1778-1840), with all the time in the world and a valet, would cheerfully discard a dozen – and arrived late.  Milt Stevens had cheerfully started discussion.  As I walked in he was just pointing out Bester’s careful structure: starting in the dark, climaxing in the cathedral, ending in the light (Van 1125).

He was generous to his club – L.A. S-F Society, oldest in the world – with effort, money, as might be needed and he had at hand.  At the first LASFS clubhouse, he did so much cleaning up he called himself the Lord High Janitor.  He’d been attending since 1960.  He was President in 1970.  He was given the Evans-Freehafer, LASFS’ service award, in 1971.  He served long on the Board of Directors, sometimes in its chair.  At the third clubhouse, parking restrictions were problematic.  He arranged to meet with police and transit authorities, brought the club’s lawyer, who was also a fan, and found a solution.

Other generosities have emerged, regarding fans, fanzines, conventions.  Among other service, he was on the Board of the Southern California Institute for Fan Interests (yes, that spells SCIFI; pronounced “skiffy”; sponsor of three Worldcons, a NASFiC, three Westercons, the Rotsler Award, and an edition of Harry Warner’s history of 1950s fandom A Wealth of Fable).

If you looked for him at a con you might find him in the bar, wearing a sports jacket, drinking Bud Light.  If you gave much weight to such things, or his mild manner, you might write him off as respectable.  He was – but in fact by our standards.  Ave atque vale.

2 thoughts on “Thumbs Up for Mr. Sardonicus

  1. Milt was the best. He quietly indulged all my gut spilling with a slight smile. He was a great writer, a good man. He will be missed.

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