Science fiction fandom is still a few years short of the first of its centenaries but there are plenty of three-quarter century anniversaries coming up, often with attendant disputes or alternatives allowing a maximum spread of celebrations.
The seventy-fifth anniversary of the first SF convention fell on 22 October this year—or will fall on 3 January next year, depending on whether you're a Philadelphian or a Leodensian. The former base their claim on a small group of New York fans visiting a similar number of Philadelphia fans in one of the latter's homes, a gathering that was only declared to be a convention as it was happening. The latter argue primacy for a slightly later but larger (20 or so) pre-planned and pre-publicised assembly in a public hall in Leeds in the UK. This does at least look a little bit more like a modern convention if not much, while Philadelphia is indubitably first. This one will, as they say, run and run.
The London bid to host the Worldcon in 2014 will—if it's successful—be able to proclaim itself to be the seventy-fifth anniversary World Science Fiction Convention; and then three years later, in what in all probability is the least consequential outcome of the Second World War, whoever wins the bid for 2017 can opt to be the subtly different seventy-fifth World Science Fiction Convention.
Fandom itself turned eighty on 11 December 2009, or at least that seems a credible starting point. The first meeting of the first club, The Scienceers of New York, was held eighty years previously with seven attendees, almost all of them teenagers. It was written up by one of the attendees, Allen Glasser, in 1961 and that account is now available online in a manner which I assume consciously mimics the look of a spirit duplicator.
British Fandom was about a year behind. On Monday 27 October 1930, the inaugural meeting of the Ilford Science Literary Circle took place at 32 Thorold Road, just to the east of London. An 18-year old Walter Gillings had written to the Ilford Recorder on 3 October inviting anyone with an interest in scientific fiction "which, we would emphasize, is an admixture of imagination and scientific FACT" to contact either him or his co-organiser Leonard Kippen. A first meeting took place and was duly reported in the Recorder on 31 October. The proselytising Gillings didn't bother with anything so mundane as the number of attendees, but British fan historian Rob Hansen has assembled a partial cast list: aside from Gillings and Kippen, who'd first met through the letter-columns of Wonder Stories earlier that year, there were Mrs. Kippen, J. W. Beck, George and Mary Drew, in whose house the Circle met, and two others. There were six further reports of the Circle's activities in the paper, through to 31 July 1931 which carried an account of what may have been the final meeting. The Circle failed to reassemble after a summer recess, in part through "a lack of enough members interested in more than parlour chit-chat" but also because it seemed to be the only way to divest themselves of "an elderly lady who had mistaken us for a Spiritualist circle." Thus was the pattern for later fandom set.
Perhaps it was simply that British fandom was collectively busy being eighty last year that caused us to overlook the roughly coincidental seventieth birthday of a word, a word that's been deeply significant to the fan community and that we've passed on to the wider world. In the October 1940 issue of a small circulation American hectographed fan magazine called Detours, Louis Russell Chauvenet wrote as if for the ages:
We hereby protest against the un-euphonius word "fanag" and announce our intention to plug "fanzine" as the best short form of "fan magazine."
As Chauvenet was himself using "fanmag" (I think "fanag" is a typo) in the September issue, this seems to be the first print usage of "fanzine," and is indeed recognised as such in Jeff Prucher's Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction. It was of course only a better name for a pre-existing form, one that had been around in the science fiction fan scene for a decade—the first such publication is generally regarded as The Comet published in 1930 in Chicago, unless you think it's The Time Traveller from New York in 1932—with antecedents back to at least the nineteenth century, but just as "science fiction" supplanted Gernsback's original coinage "scientifiction," the term fanzine was widely adopted and in later years spread to amateur publications about music, comics, and sport, and indeed just about anything.
The fact that the form survives in the Internet age seems surprising to some. A recent Twitter comment—which I'm afraid I can't now locate to source properly—suggested that it's only the fact that the Hugo Awards still acknowledge fanzines that keeps them alive at all in the SF arena, a remark that was likely to raise a chuckle amongst some fanzine aficionados who look on the Hugos and indeed their parent Worldcons with considerably less than wild enthusiasm.
So why do science fiction fanzines survive? Possibly it is clinging to the past, harking back to a golden age, doing what we've always done. Possibly, at least if you're talking about fanzines distributed in hard copy, it's about communication with a known audience of friends and acquaintances. Possibly it's for no other reason than that some fans enjoy producing fanzines while another partially overlapping group enjoys receiving them. Science fiction fandom does to some extent still privilege the form, certainly. There have recently been changes redefining the Hugo category for best fanzine to encompass a wide range of fan productions such as podcasts and arguably blogs, and clearly that's not been entirely unsuccessful at extending its scope—a podcast won the award in 2010—and yet the category remains dominated by what are essentially print publications, even if some of their editors and producers have stopped short of actually printing them in favour of distribution via email or websites, notably efanzines.com.
This year, the Hugo Award for best fanzine went to The Drink Tank, a co-production from the hyper-energetic Christopher J. Garcia from California and London resident ex-pat Irishman James Bacon. It's difficult to write about The Drink Tank as it's such a moving target. As I'm writing this column the most recent issue is #296. By the time I've finished it, or even by the time I've finished this paragraph or sentence, there could be a #297 or even #298, and all the time Chris and James are stampeding towards an epic milestone #300 for which they're planning to have 300 contributors (really). They've got this far in only six years, and most of that under Chris's hand alone. Due to the occasional half-numbered issue, Dave Langford's Ansible has technically passed the 300 mark even though it's only currently at #292, but that's taken him 24 years with only a short break. Chris and James have a way to go until they match James Taurasi's Fantasy Times, which managed 465 issues between 1941 and 1969, but I'm sure they will rise to even that challenge.
For all that it's avowedly an electronic publication, available as a PDF and rarely with any accompanying print edition, there's a sense in which The Drink Tank is very much in the spirit of its duplicated forebears. It uses full colour artwork in a way that would deeply traumatise anybody who had to pay a printing bill, and it sources some of its content online away from the traditional fannish arena, but much of the content feels as if it's the twenty-first century equivalent of first drafting on a stencil. Chris introduced James as sometime co-editor to bring restraint and measured consideration to the compositional process, and the success of this is hinted at in the YouTube video of their Hugo acceptance speech—although to spare you another link which you weren't going to click anyway, I will suggest that it was roughly analogous to our illustrious editor inviting Geoff Ryman, Scott Edelman, and John Kessel over for a "Short Folk in SF" evening. The great writer, editor, and fan Terry Carr once wrote a profile piece about the artist Jack Gaughan in which he mentioned "an author, a good one, who writes for me, and whenever I call him about a deadline for one of his books he says, 'Do you want it good, or do you want it Monday?'" The Chris Garcia approach has, I think, always been "Why wait until Monday?" Whenever a thought seizes him, he writes it down, embellishes it with some artwork, perhaps adds a short article from Canadian fan writer and artist Taral Wayne and a smattering of letters, and another issue of The Drink Tank hits the virtual newsstands.
Sandra Bond, writing in the SF Encyclopaedia, covers it quite nicely when she says "[w]hilst its frequency combines with its essentially amateur nature to produce a sometimes sloppy effect, The Drink Tank always gives the impression of having a finger in most of science fiction's pies."
And I just checked. They're still at #297.
[Editor's note: now #298]
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