Fanorama by Walt Willis

WALTER WILLIS writes for you

"Let's take science fiction away from the people and give it back to. the fans!" The first time I heard this ironic sentiment expressed was in a hotel room during the Manchester Convention a few years ago, and at the time I thought little about it. There were about thirty other people talking at the same time and it was a very small room. . . . I think we would all have suffocated if someone hadn't had the presence of mind to take the telephone off the hook . . . and the atmosphere was not conducive to thought. Besides, some zany humorist chose that moment to open the window and lob a bottle into the canal, proclaiming: "I name this city . . . Manchester!" A lot of water, or whatever that liquid was, has flowed down the Manchester Ship Canal since those days, but the serious question concealed in that first facetious suggestion is now being asked by a lot of people. It is, briefly, when science fiction is really popular will there still be science fiction fans?

Some people would make an even wider issue of it; viz., when space flight becomes a reality will there still be science fiction? But, as Sid Birchby points out in the current Triode where both sides of this question are cogently put, in fact quite a small proportion of current science fiction stories are primarily concerned with space flight, and still less with any sort of space flight we're likely to see this century. Besides, if there's one sure thing about science, it is that every discovery uncovers more of our ignorance than it covers. No, I think science fiction will be all right, Jack. But has it pulled up the gangplank and left us behind?

I'm not talking about the keen science fiction reader. It has been suggested that when science fiction becomes widely popular—becomes part of mainstream literature as the intellectuals put it—the specialist reader will die out, but I can't see it myself. Admittedly many of us no longer feel the ravening hunger for it we used to feel when the only magazine was a slim reprint from Astounding, but the point is we would still rather read good science fiction than anything else.

No, what I'm thinking about is the few thousand vocal fans who make up what we know as fandom, those who are sufficiently interested in science fiction to want to communicate with one another and some of whom publish the amateur magazines I review in this column. And here there are two quite separate arguments being advanced in the fanmags. The first is that when science fiction becomes popular and "respectable" there will be no urge for its readers to band together as a sort of persecuted minority, and the bond which makes science fiction fans all over the world feel closer together than their next door neighbours will weaken. There may be something in this, but I doubt if science fiction will ever become popular in that sense. There will always be the minority who look up at the stars in wonder and the majority who grub along the gutter for pennies.

Take, for instance, as a lighthearted example the researches of two young fans, Ken Potter and Dave Wood, among the inhabitants of Lancaster, as reported in the current Brennschluss. Some eight years ago, when the researchers were still small boys, they got to wondering what the public reaction would actually be to an alien visitation. Hundreds of science fiction authors had speculated about it, but apparently no one had actually done any practical work on it, which seemed very unworthy for people dedicated to the Scientific Method. So Dave dressed up in an outlandishly painted shroud decked out with vacuum cleaner attachments, and Ken dashed along the street ahead of him shouting "A Martian's landed!" I regret to have to inform you that some of the natives ignored the Invasion altogether and the rest told it to go away. So there you are; I almost feel sorry for the Martians when they do come. Atomic bombs, death rays and blasters are sort of compliments in a way, but to be cut dead! Mind you, I suspect that the psychological technique in this instance may have prejudiced the result. Ken's panic-stricken cry was just the sort of thing to bring out the famous English stolidity in the face of danger: they went on with their metaphorical game of bowls. Whereas if Ken had murmured politely: "I say, there's a small boy dressed up in a vacuum cleaner" I daresay they would have flown into a panic and written a letter to The Times: " Sir, I saw a Martian in Lancaster this morning, February 27th. Is this a record?"

The other problem is the one you may have guessed yourself from my quotations from current fanmags. It is that nowadays fans don't talk about science fiction all the time, and that's putting it mildly. This is what's been worrying me ever since I started to write this column and what is now worrying all science fiction fans. Our fear is that you, a keen science fiction reader, may write away for a copy of what you understand to be a science fiction fan magazine and be annoyed to find there isn't a lot about science fiction in it. I could say you were just unlucky and advise you to try again, that there are some very good fan magazines entirely devoted to discussion of science fiction, but I think it's better to be frank about it. We are all science fiction fans and we all like to read and talk about it, but many of 'us have been doing that for years and we know what we and each other like, and after a while we find people more fun to write about . . . ourselves and each other and the personalities of the science fiction world. I'd ask you to make allowances for that, if you write away for a fan magazine on my recommendation and find something in it you don't immediately understand. The important thing it seems to me is to make it clear to you that this isn't a clique or a closed shop. New people are coming in all the time, though not as many as we'd like, and you're welcome even if all you want to do is sit and watch. But if you do send for a sample I promise you'll find a little world of interesting people of all types and, if you've ever wanted to write or draw and especially if you've a sense of humour, you might even find the gateway to the most fascinating hobby there is.

Here are the addresses of the two fan magazines mentioned: TRIODE, Eric Bentcliffe and Terry Jeeves, 47 Alldis St., Gt. Moor, Stockport, Cheshire; 1/6 per copy.
BRENNSCHLUSS, Ken and Irene Potter and Dave Wood, 72 Dallas Rd., Lancaster; 1/6- per copy.

from Nebula No. 31, June 1958

"Think of it, Smithers, all gone these million years"

Last revised: 1 October, 2006

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