The Big Three and a Lesson About Fixing Things Wrong

Robert Heinlein, L. Sprague de Camp, and Isaac Asimov, Philadelphia Navy Yard, 1944. Heinlein and Asimov were two of The Big Three. Who was the third?

Robert Heinlein, L. Sprague de Camp, and Isaac Asimov, Philadelphia Navy Yard, 1944. Heinlein and Asimov were two of The Big Three. Who was the third?

Last weekend, Vox Day set out to score a point for Infogalactic over the Wikipedia. Infogalactic is the rival online encyclopedia Day launched in October.

…And finally, another example of how Infogalactic is fundamentally more accurate than Wikipedia due to the latter’s insistence on unreliable Reliable Sources.

Robert Heinlein on Wikipedia

Heinlein became one of the first science-fiction writers to break into mainstream magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post in the late 1940s. He was one of the best-selling science-fiction novelists for many decades, and he, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke are often considered the “Big Three” of science fiction authors.[5][6]

Robert Heinlein on Infogalactic

He was one of the first science fiction writers to break into mainstream magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post in the late 1940s. He was one of the best-selling science fiction novelists for many decades, and he, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke are often erroneously considered to be the “Big Three” of science fiction authors.[5][6]. The original “Big Three” were actually Heinlein, Asimov, and A.E. van Vogt.[7]

This is what winning the cultural war looks like. Getting the facts straight one at a time.

Since Vox Day’s post, an Infogalactic editor has revised the Heinlein entry to phrase the correction even more emphatically:

He was one of the best-selling science fiction novelists for many decades, and he, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke are often considered to be the “Big Three” of science fiction authors[5][6], however the inclusion of Clarke is erroneous. The original “Big Three” were actually Heinlein, Asimov, and A.E. van Vogt.[7]

Proving that you’re never too old to learn, while I knew Heinlein, Asimov and van Vogt were Campbell’s top writers in the 1940s, I couldn’t recall ever hearing them referred to as the Big Three, whereas I had often heard that term applied to the trio named by the Wikipedia.  (Michael Moorcock wrote that Clarke was one of the Big Three in an article published just this month.) Was the Heinlein/Asimov/Clarke identification really “erroneous”? I have to admit that seeing Infogalactic’s cited source was a John C. Wright essay from 2014 made me want to check further before accepting the information.

Google led me to the Fancyclopedia (1944). Originally, “the Big Three” was a label 1930s fans applied to the three dominant prozines. Obviously at some later point they also endowed it on three sf writers. When did that happen, and who were the writers?

Isaac Asimov supplies the answer in I. Asimov: A Memoir (1994):

There was no question that by 1949 I was widely recognized as a major science fiction writer. Some felt I had joined Robert Heinlein and A.E.  van Vogt as the three-legged stool on which science fiction now rested.

As it happened, A.E. van Vogt virtually ceased writing in 1950, perhaps because he grew increasingly interested in Hubbard’s dianetics. In 1946, however, a British writer, Arthur C. Clarke, began to write for ASF, and he, like Heinlein and van Vogt (but unlike me), was an instant hit.

By 1949, the first whisper of Heinlein, Clarke, and Asimov as “the Big Three” began to be heard, This kept up for some forty years, for we all stayed alive for decades and all remained in the science fiction field.

Therefore, John C. Wright (in “The Big Three of Science Fiction” from Transhuman and Subhuman: Essays on Science Fiction and Awful Truth) correctly stated that Heinlein, Asimov and van Vogt were “the three major writers of Campbell’s Golden Age.” (The Science Fiction Encyclopedia also calls them “the big three”.)

But Infogalactic, unfortunately motivated by a need to get in a jab at the Wikipedia, has oversold Wright’s argument and missed a chance to be really accurate. The truth is that both trios were “the Big Three,” each in their own era.

Fancy Free

Jim Caughran, who has tried to bring the Fancyclopedia to the web and make it a living, wiki-like document, admitted his frustration with the project in a widely-broadcast e-mail titled “Fancyclopedia free to good home” –

I’ve not had the energy to do a good job with Fancyclopedia. I’ve never been good at asking people for contributions to fanzines or to Fancyclopedia, nor am I knowledgeable enough to write on my own. I had hoped it would spontaneously take off, contributors flocking to the site to write their version of history. Silly me.

Still, the site has its good points. I was proud of the reformatting and cross-referencing of F2. There have been updates to several items. It’s easily available and potentially valuable to fan historians.

The cost is fairly small, but I don’t see the point of paying it in perpetuity for a static site.

If someone is willing to take over, or if someone has ideas of how to get it working, let me know.
Off the top ideas:
    a committee? (would this doom it?)
    Subsume it into Wikipedia?

Jim Caughran can be contacted at fancyclopedia (at) gmail (dot) com.

Jim deserves thanks, both for his work to date and for publicly raising the issue instead of abandoning the project. And if his off-the-top ideas for getting it working bear fruit that will be great, though I will be surprised if that happens. A committee’s failure to significantly advance Fancyclopedia 3 is one reason the project passed into the current hands. Then, the Wikipedia is administered by a tangled fandom of its own that I predict won’t regard most of the material as significant enough to warrant inclusion. They also don’t tend to accept articles without citations, or citing little-known blogs and websites (much less citing dead links at

Let’s remember what was behind the success of the first two Fancyclopedias – a fan passionately dedicated to writing and completing the project, Jack Speer on the first Fancyclopedia and Richard Eney on the update. Over the past 25 years small groups of fans have tried to devise processes to compensate for there being no volunteer wanting to take that level of responsibility for the task. Experience has shown that you cannot get the work of a lion out of a pack of well-intentioned part-time volunteers.

I suspect that level of passion is needed for more than one reason at this point. There’s the mass of writing that needs to be done, of course. Passion will also be needed to overcome any doubts as to why such a project is still a good investment of time. How many people will use an online Fancyclopedia? Questions constantly arise that experienced fans might answer by opening one of Harry Warner’s histories, but they often don’t do it.

On the other hand, justifications like audience size were irrelevant to Speer or Eney (although I’m sure they felt the membership of FAPA made up in quality what it lacked in quantity.) The truth about most fannish undertakings is that nobody really needs them, fans simply insist on doing them. (Consider this blog, for example…) That kind of self-determined fanwriter is what the project requires if it’s ever going to be done.

Postscript: Should a group rather than an auteur continue the Fancyclopedia project anyway, I offer them this advice.

It’s impossible to attract fanwriters by telling them you plan to treat them as unskilled laborers. I wonder how many people turned aside from the project after reading this warning:

Unlike Wikipedia, Fancyclopedia is to be an edited encyclopedia. Your editors will impose their own iron whim on content, style and presentation.

Also, it is necessary to overcome, not be subservient to, the form in which the project is cast. Fans are less interested in articles that deliver data than they are in stories. I think the underlying appeal of the faanish dictionaries produced by Elst Weinstein and rich brown was how many of their definitions conveyed a story about an individual, event or controversy. The online Fancyclopedia needs to draw on the same energy source.

[Thanks to Andrew Porter for the story.]

Jack Speer (1920-2008)

Jack Speer at Bubonicon 36 (2006)

“First Fandom member and writer of the Fancylopedia Jack Speer passed away this morning [June 28],” writes Patricia Rogers.

Speer’s famous Fancyclopedia, published in 1944, formalized definitions for hundreds of terms in use by fans.

Prior to that, in 1939, he wrote the first history of science fiction fandom, called Up To Now. It was very hard to find copies until just last month when Robert Lichtman recreated it as a PDF edition and posted it at eFanzines. In this zine, Speer first articulated the idea of Numbered Fandoms (fannish historical epochs), which ever since has occupied many a fan’s idle hours.

Speer also innovated several indispensable bits of faanish typography, including the quasi-quote mark and the interlineation. He contributed to faanish cosmology by inventing FooFoo, the ghod of mimeography, fearsome foe of Ghu.

According to Don Fitch, Speer was diagnosed as terminal some weeks ago. Still, Jack had managed to attend Corflu Silver in April, making his way around with the aid of a portable oxygen supply, attentive to everything going on. The con’s classic moment was when fellow eo-fan Art Widner serenaded Jack with the first-ever filksong, written by Jack himself.

Although the term “filksong” had yet to be invented, several of these songs were sung at the 1940 Worldcon. Jack created them by setting new lyrics with a science fictional theme to familiar tunes. A snippet of one goes:

We’ll build a tempo-ship
And we’ll take a little trip,
And watch a million years go by.

In 1995, Speer received the First Fandom Hall of Fame Award. In 2004, he was Fan Guest of Honor at Noreascon 4. His collection, Fancestral Voices, was published by NESFA Press for the occasion.

Having spent decades thinking of Speer as a distinguished founding father of fandom, as he certainly was, I’ve tended to overlook that he was having a helluva lot of fun while making history. This point is brought home by Harry Warner’s anecdote about Speer at the 1947 Worldcon in All Our Yesterdays:

From time to time that Saturday night, the happy fans were vaguely aware of the existence of loud, intermittent noises. Several Philadelphians explained them away as a local phenomenon that occurred when sewer gas caused manhole lids to lift violently in a sort of municipal burping. However, the real facts were not at all like that. During a late drinking session…Speer had suddenly remembered the existence of fireworks in the hip pocket of the Quintessence of FooFoo, his current auto…. Several roman candles later, policemen in a squad car gave [Speer and other fans] a warning about discharging fireworks within the city limits… [Afterwards], Speer and Davis seem to have taken up strategic posts on upper fire escapes [of the con hotel]… Firecrackers and skyrockets were alternated to provide variety… When the police returned… they paid $5.00 apiece at the 21st District Station for disturbing the peace. The investment was at least partly justified because the pyrotechnics had helped Willy Ley find his way to the hotel.

A later e-mail from Patricia Rogers concluded with this request: “I talked with Ruth [Jack’s wife] for around an hour this evening. The memorial will probably be on July 8 or 9.  She has asked me to speak about Jack and his role in SF/Fandom at the service. I know a fair amount but if you or anyone you can think of has anything they would like to add – I would be happy to – just let me know.”

Fancyclopedia Update

Jim Caughran, announcing the latest additions to the online Fancyclopedia, sends links to Jean Weber’s updates of the articles about Fan Funds, GUFF and DUFF.

Weber’s list of a fund winner’s duties includes:

Fund winners become administrators of the fund until the next winner returns from a trip. Fund winners are expected to publish a trip report.

Well, I always do expect them to write a report, and some funds enjoy a good track record when it comes to that. A surprising number of TAFF winners have not felt obligated in that way. Fortunately, there is Chris Garcia’s good example to point out (donation required for access to the full online report; individual chapters have been published in several recent fanzines that are freely available on