Fanorama by Walt Willis

WALTER WILLIS writes for you

If my calculations are correct, and I figure this is bound to happen sometime by the law of averages, this column should be making its appearance just about the time Nebula's first four-part serial is sweeping majestically towards its climax. In the circumstances, maybe I should try and tell you something about its author, Mr. H. Kenneth Bulmer. As a matter of fact the only reason I haven't done this before is that I know too much about him. No, relax, this isn't going to be a Sunday newspaper exposure of authors in the Nebula stable kicking over the traces, it's just that I know and like Ken Bulmer too well to be confident I can do him justice. When you don't know very intimately the people you're writing about you have no trouble with selection. All you do is pass on to the reader your impressions of them and you have done your best: he has a nice clear little picture of the subject, on thin cardboard, just like yours. But I have known Ken Bulmer very well for more than ten years. I have put him up in my house and he has put up with me in his, and we have spent holidays together in various rainswept bungalows along the Irish coast. So when I think of him I'm inclined to forget the respected professional author: I tend to remember a bleary-eyed figure leaning against the kitchen doorway saying something like, "The best thing about having a hardboiled cigarette for breakfast is that you have time to smoke an egg."

Ken Bulmer is about thirty-five, dark-haired, wears glasses and has what in other people might be called round shoulders but in his case is obviously a scholarly stoop. When I first met him he owned a vehicle which in deference to the feelings of the automobile industry I always referred to as a horseless carriage. The importance of this contraption to the history of science fiction was that one journey in it so harrowed the soul of a friend of mine that he wrote an account of it in a fan magazine, and this was the start of the writing career of another pillar of British science fiction, James White. Eventually, having fulfilled its destiny and understandably depressed by the gloomy prognostications of all Ken's friends, the engine of the vehicle did fall out. Leaving it smoking in the road, Ken married a vivacious brunette called Pamela who is still in good running order and now drives him. They live in an old house with a red door in an endless road in South East London.

At the time I first met him, Ken had no thought of being a professional author, though I was publishing fiction by him in my fan magazine. The nearest either of us had got to professional publication at that time was a short story we collaborated on one Sunday morning in Regent's Park Zoo, about the crew of a spaceship who were wrecked on the night side of an unknown planet and were eaten one by one by various kinds of horrible monsters until dawn, when the lone survivor found they had landed inside a wall bearing the notice "Please Do Not Feed The Animals". This story was at one time to be published by a reckless professional editor in Australia, but the publishers got wind of it and promptly went into voluntary liquidation. Undismayed, and encouraged by Pamela, Ken fought on and is now one of the very few people able to make a living by whole-time science fiction writing.

As well as the scientific knowledge shown in his stories and as half of Kenneth Johns, Ken is a mine of information on all sorts of odd subjects, from sailing ships and aerodynamics to old weapons and fortifications. But I wouldn't like you to think he is just a dilettante, an academic theorist. He puts his knowledge to sound practical use, as you would realise if you saw the fantastic galleons and brigantines he makes for my children. out of old Woodbine packets and iced lollie sticks. Or witnessed him flying his own design of a kite, half strangled in a cocoon of a peculiar string we had got from the local general store, so bent on its own destruction we called it the Gaderene twine. Or defying the incoming tide inside a beautifully castellated and complex fort of sand. As Wilde said, simple pleasures are the last refuge of the complex, and Ken is one of those all too rare people who have the capacity to preserve in maturity the joyous enthusiasm of childhood. In this, perhaps, is the sense of wonder so  many of us miss in current science fiction? If so, Ken Bulmer is the author who may supply it and, if he continues to show in his published work half the human understanding that endears him to his friends, he may one of these days be a very great writer.

Satellite No. 7. Don Allen, 34a Cumberland St., Gateshead 8, Co. Durham. 1/-. The cover proclaims in huge black capitals, "They took this fan . . . they gave him a gun . . . injected .. . drilled . . . deported . . . His fannish spirit yet survived . . . to bring you the full shocking story . . . It's Raw . . . Stark . . . Brutal." From which you may gather that the engaging Don Allen has returned from his national service with his sense of humour unimpaired. This issue starts off with the first part of Don's account of his various travels and the fans he met in the course of them and the rest of the issue, while containing little about science fiction itself, is interesting if you would like to know more about science fiction fans, or indeed if you are interested in interesting people.

from Nebula No. 35, October 1958

Last revised: 1 October, 2006

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