Key To The Hydra Club

Frederik Pohl wrote once again about the Hydra Club on his blog the other day, reprinting a description of its origins from an old press release:

The Hydra Club was founded in 1947. A New York club, it was founded in Philadelphia, at that year’s Worldcon, when Lester del Rey said to Frederik Pohl, talking about spending time with fellow sf people, a novelty, since the recently ended war had broken up established sf groups, “This was fun. We ought to do it more often.” Back in New York, they did. They each rounded up some friends — totalling nine in all, which accounts for the name, which was borrowed from that of a legendary Greek monster with nine heads — and the club was formed.

Fandom rediscovered the Hydra Club a few years ago when Life Magazine’s photo archive went online and the enterprising Bill Higgins learned it contained a panoramic picture of pros and fans attending the banquet of the NY Science Fiction Conference in 1950 which Hydra helped organize.

Dave Kyle, in “The Legendary Hydra Club” (Mimosa 25), said the photo included both Hydras and members of the Eastern Science Fiction Association who had also been invited. Unfortunately, none of these people were named in Life’s caption.

Now there’s fresh hope for matching names to the faces. Pohl’s latest post includes a piece of artwork by Harry Harrison with caricatures of several dozen Hydras. It includes a key with all their names. This originally served as an illustration for Judith Merrill’s 1951 article about the Hyrda Club in Marvel Science Fiction. An enterprising person could use Harrison’s work to identify some of the diners in Life’s photo.

Merrill’s full article is posted at Lady, That’s My Skull. The text begins:

Article One: The name of this organization shall be the Hydra Club.

Article Two: The purpose of this organization shall be…

Puzzled silence greeted the reader as he lay down the proposed draft of a constitution, and looked hopefully at the eight other people in the room.

“The rest of it was easy,” he explained, “but we spent a whole evening trying to think of something for that.”

“Strike out that paragraph,” someone said. “We just haven’t got a purpose.”

Harry Harrison (1925-2012)

Harry Harrison passed away August 15 at the age of 87. Born and raised in the U.S., he lived in several other countries, including Ireland for many years, before dying in England. The SFWA Grand Master (2009), inductee of the SF Hall of Fame (2004), and past Worldcon guest of honor (1990) was also co-founder of World SF and part of the famed Hydra Club.

After I discovered sf in the 1960s and set about reading everything in the library, I became a fan of Harrison’s fiction both in its own right and as a dialog with his contemporary writers. While that was unmistakable in outright satires like Bill, The Galactic Hero, a send-up of Heinlein, Dickson and Asimov, it was also true of his straight fiction, like Deathworld (a 1961 Hugo nominee serialized in Astounding) or his series of matter-transmitter stories.

I soon learned through fanzines that most sf writers feel they are part of a literary conversation, however, fanzines also allowed me to witness the combative side of Harrison’s personality, the need to define himself by opposition to perceived wrongdoing, even if it might be hard for anybody else to see the difference. For example, readers found plenty of action in novels like Deathworld, but Harrison saw his violence as quite different from the warfare in other genre works:

You know they’re adventure stories without being like Baen books which have nothing but war stories in the U.S. – it’s violence – it’s just dirty! It’s pornography of violence I think. I can’t stand it. There’s too much of the heads rolling and guns bursting you know. It’s not my stick.

Harrison was an unabashed liberal and in these highly-polarized times his virtual father-son relationship with editor John W. Campbell is almost unfathomable given their irreconcilable political views. Yet it was Harrison who edited John W. Campbell: Collected Editorials from Analog, two volumes of The Astounding-Analog Reader, and The John W. Campbell Memorial Anthology. He told an interviewer in 1997

I was the very opposite of him politically in every way but he never dictated, It was easy to sell him a series, hard to sell him a short story. If he didn’t like a short story, he threw it out. But a serial, novel length thing, he knew what it was going to be like from the very beginning. And if he did not like it, he didn’t put it in. But he would allow you the freedom to do whatever you want. He might argue with you, but he wouldn’t correct you….

I worked with him, in a sense collaborated with him. When I gave him an outline for Deathworld, my first novel, he wrote me a five page letter of  [pause] not telling me what to do but expatiating on my ideas. You didn’t have to follow him. He never told you to, “do this.” In a sense, all my novels, the first five or six, are a sort of collaboration with John….

There was a lot of give and take. Poul Anderson once said that having lunch with John Campbell was like throwing man-hole covers at each other, you know KLANG, CRASH, BANG.

The movie Soylent Green (1973) was based on Harrison’s novel Make Room! Make Room! (1966), elevating it as his most recognizable work. Considering Harrison’s stated dislike for Stanley R. Greenberg’s script, it’s either ironic or unfair that Soylent Green was also the only item of Harrison’s career to win a major award, a 1974 Nebula.

Harrison got his start in the professional sf field not as a writer but as an artist for EC Comics. Then for several years he was the main writer of the Flash Gordon newspaper comic strip.

Among his other achievements, Harrison co-edited nine editions of the Best SF annual with Brian Aldiss, spanning 1967-1975.

A fan of SF beginning in 1938 at the age of 13, Harrison co-founded the Queens chapter of the Science Fiction League. Later, as a pro writer in New York, he was part of the Hydra Club — and may well be somewhere in the LIFE magazine group photo (1950).

He also helped found World SF, primarily organized to hold regular meetings of sf professionals all over the world to which Soviet bloc and Chinese sf writers could be invited, facilitating their ability to travel to the west.

Life in Fandom, Vintage 1951

While I’m impressed that Google can search Life magazine’s photo archive, it’s had no practical impact on my blogging – my posts don’t call for pictures of Dwight Eisenhower, Rita Hayworth and Jackie Kennedy. And when Google Books made 1800 complete issues of Life available online September 23, I supposed bloggers would attach the most significance to Google’s first having secured permission of the copyright holder. Not so!

Bill Higgins (I hear) was the first to discover within this massive collection something of unique fanhistorical interest. He triggered an internet stampede by posting the Google Books link to Winthrop Sargeant’s article in the May 21, 1951 issue of Life – “Through the Interstellar Looking Glass” – an astonishingly well-informed narrative about science fiction fandom. Such accuracy and sensitivity to fannish nuance remains beyond the capability of today’s journalists, so the achievement is all the more remarkable having come at a time when fans identified themselves with propeller beanies. (*)

Sargeant not only got the facts right, he also had remarkable sympathy for fandom’s received wisdom on many points, such as:

…the modern science fiction fan tends to be a little suspicious of any contemporary STF writer who, like Ray Bradbury, gives moral ideas and human problems precedence over invention and discovery.

James V. Taurasi, Forrest J Ackerman and various Detroit fans were Sargeant’s sources, according to A Wealth of Fable. These sources even arranged to have Life magazine put the slug on assorted science fictional embarrassments like the Shaver Mystery. (Richard Shaver is little remembered now, but back in the day when Bob Stewart invented a dartboard with pictures of annoying pros taped to it, players got 10 points for Ellison and 7 for Shaver.)

You can find good links to the article at Ansible or The Crotchety Old Fan.  

The visual pièce de résistance is the two-page spread devoted to a panoramic photo of pros and fans at a Hydra Club banquet. Curiously, no one in the photo is identified in the caption. I’d sure like to know what names go with all these faces.

The Hydra Club was a group of New York writers — Frederik Pohl was one of the nine heads who founded it. Dave Kyle says in “The Legendary Hydra Club” (Mimosa 25) that the banquet photo Life published was taken at the Hydras’ New York Science Fiction Conference of July 1-3, 1950. Hydras organized it and invited ESFA members to participate, too.

The photo may include any or all of the Hydra members named in Kyle’s article: Judy Merrill, Sam Merwin, Jerry Bixby, Isaac Asimov, Harrison Smith (Publisher of The Saturday Review of Literature), Bea Mahaffey, Walter Bradbury (Doubleday), Groff Conklin, Frederick Fell, Robert Arthur, Dr. Tom Gardner, Dr. David H. Keller, Will F. Jenkins (Murray Leinster), and Phil Klass.

Sargeant’s article would have been just the beginning of respectable mass media attention to fandom had things happened according to plan. The 1952 Worldcon in Chicago drew representatives from Look, Life and Time. Unfortunately, as Warner writes in A Wealth of Fable, when the representatives of the Luce magazines found Look photographers taking pictures of a ballet which University of Chicago students had worked up, they walked out in a huff. All three magazines turned up their noses and published nothing about the con.

(*) Mind you, John Hertz and I are quite fond of ours. However, we’d be silly to think wearing them confers upon us any authority with reporters.