Thursday, January 21, 2016

A. Merritt - The Invisible Man

Stolen mercilessly from Wikipedia -
Merritt in about 1920.
Abraham Grace Merritt, better known by his byline A. Merritt, was born on January 20, 1884 - happy (belated) thirteenty-second birthday Mr. Merritt!

Merritt is an interesting example of the way in which SFF has changed over the years, and how these changes have led to the bizarre invisibility of influential writers.

Merritt's bibliography isn't all that long compared to his contemporaries in "fantastic fiction", but he started early and was weighty enough that he was the subject of an interview in Science Fiction Digest's "Titans of Science Fiction Series" (Jan 1933) and the inimitable Forrest J Ackerman reported that when Merritt's day job prevented him from attending the 1st Worldcon in 1939 a group of fans visited him at The American Weekly offices afterwards.

Oddly, despite being credited with inspiring Lovecraft [1] and other contemporaries such as Richard Shaver, and Hannes Bok (not to mention several authors of the "Golden Age" to come), being listed on "best ever" lists for horror and fantasy/science fiction as late as the 80s [2], having been translated and reprinted in other languages decades after his death [3], being voted "favourite author of all time" by readers of Argosy in 1938, having his name in the title of a magazine [4] and creating an enduring cult masterpiece in The Snake Mother [5], Merritt's name rarely comes up these days.  How could such an influential author be so generally unknown today?

Part of the answer probably comes from his writing - Merritt's rich prose is without question quite different from the rather spartan styles that came to be the norm in the 50s and 60s.  Like many other writers from the first half of the 20th century, the density of Merritt's writing is such that for many people it's a love it or hate it proposition.  Not that this rich style has entirely fallen out of fashion - not only have other authors of the period and with similarly "purple" style continued to be popular right up to today (um...Lovecraft?) but other writers continued to see success with richer language than the blunt "Hemingway-esque" style that began to dominate in the 50s and 60s (eg Jack Vance) and of course many well regarded modern writers work hard to achieve rich, lyrical prose. [6]

But even accounting for changes in stylistic tastes, by all rights, you'd think that Merritt would continue to enjoy some level of popularity - so why is it that according to my "rigorous" research [7] there have been next to no reprints of Merritt's work this century? (and few at the end of the last)

I think the answer probably lies at the feet of the same forces that resulted in "The Great Delisting" which I've mentioned before. [8]

"The Golden Age" of science fiction is typically thought of as being the the 1940s just after John W. Campbell took over editorial control of Astounding, but like Robert Silverberg [9] I prefer to think of the 50s as the true golden age of SF.  In part, this is because some of my absolute favourite SF authors begin to emerge in this era, but mainly it's because this is when I start to see the cracks forming.

In the 1950s, Campbell's grip on the fate of science fiction was unshakable - he had total editorial control of Astounding, and Astounding was the premiere periodical of the time, with the best pay rates and the highest profile.  It goes without saying that Campbell's vision of what science fiction should be was enormously influential.  This is the era in which "technological visions of the future" increasingly became the very definition of science fiction, and this is when the heirs of Campbell's first generation of writers really came into their own.

At the same time, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings was making waves - and creating a template for "fantasy" as the fiction of magical pasts in contrast to the scientific futures being painted in "hard" science fiction. While fantasy elements continued to play a part in science fiction for some years [10] it seems as though the two sub-genres were increasingly in opposition, and creating alternate worlds that were increasingly isolated from one another.

The New Wave era of the late 60s and 70s made an effort to re-blur the lines between fantasy and science fiction, but really it didn't stick - by the time the RPG boom of the 1980s was underway (and in some ways because of it) the categories were becoming increasingly ossified, at least in terms of commercial considerations:

There were shelves for science fiction in the bookstores and the libraries, and on them you expected to find Niven and Heinlein and other tales of spaceships and ray guns and the future.

There were shelves for fantasy, where you might or might not find reflections of Tolkien's elves and hobbits, but you'd certainly find re-imagined pasts filled with magic and monsters, and faced with sword in hand.

There were shelves for horror - still often the horror of the occult and demonic forces, but also shading into the horror of blood and death, and certainly an increasingly distinct category.

This three-way split was by no means hard and fast - you still occasionally found crossover and blends in the 80s - but it was rapidly ossifying, in part due to the standardized business practices of the successful franchise chains that were becoming a powerful force in the publishing industry. [11]

Worse: fast forward to the 90s and later, and the genre categories get carved in stone by massive marketing efforts like Amazon where, with the challenge of browsing at all, it suddenly becomes critical for works to match the tags that will bring the right customers to them.

The thing about Merritt [12] is that while he was a highly influential writer of fantastic fiction, his work is rooted in a tradition that doesn't easily fit into modern genre categories.  Most of his celebrated works are stories that might best be described as "fantastic adventure fiction" - the tales revolve around a contemporary (to the intended reader) protagonist who discovers something curious and follows a trail that leads to the discovery that "all is not as it seems."  These are tales of the weird, of occult realities that lie hidden from ordinary people.

Which shelf do you even put this on in a modern bookstore?

While some of Merritt's contemporaries can be shoehorned into one of our modern categories or another - Lovecraft into horror, Ray Cummings into SF, for example - Merritt's development of this particular set of tropes is harder to sort.  The closest we might see in the modern context might be something like Dan Brown or the X-Files, both of which deal with a similar kind of "contemporary protagonist discovers a hidden dimension of reality" kind of adventure story, but I suspect the style needed to carry off a modern "conspiracy theory" adventure piece is a discouragingly large step from Merritt's work.

Unfortunately, this leaves him without any clear heirs to claim his legacy - and more importantly, it leaves booksellers with a head-scratching problem: if they did reprint some of Merritt's work, where should it be displayed to ensure the right readers see it? What kind of cover art should it have to signal what kind of story it is?

And these considerations are above and beyond the basic question of whether the ordinary social norms reflected in Merritt's work will be acceptable to a modern audience. [13]

It's a shame that a combination of shifts in literary taste, narrowed definitions of genre, and certainly to some extent shifts in social attitudes [14] would render such an important writer nearly invisible to today's fans.  Merritt is an author who definitely warrants a look by anyone who is interested in seeing where some of the common tropes of modern fantasy and horror come from - and luckily, although most of his work languishes in the unreprinted void of the Great Delisting a fair amount of it is out of copyright in some parts of the world and available online in one format or another.

Take a look, embrace the heavier prose of yesteryear - once you get used to it, you're in for a wild ride!


1. The Moon Pool and The Conquest of the Moon Pool which appeared in installments in All-Story Weekly 1918-1919 seem to have been the proximate cause of Lovecraft's Deep Ones (in The Shadow over Innsmouth (1931)), and some people see a strong link between Merritt's "The People of the Pit" (Jan 1918) and HPL's At the Mountains of Madness (also 1931)) - but it should also be noted that Lovecraft had harsh words for the way Merritt's style developed over the years:

"Abe Merritt - who could have been a Machen or Blackwood or Dunsany or de la Mare or M.R. James.... if he had but chosen - is so badly sunk that he's lost the critical faculty to realise it... Every magazine trick & mannerism must be rigidly unlearned & banished even from one's subconsciousness before one can write seriously for educated mental adults. That's why Merritt lost - je learned the trained-dog tricks too well & now he can't think & feel fictionally except in terms of the meaningless & artificial cliches of 2-cent-a-word romance. Machen & Dunsany & James would not learn the tricks - & they have a record of achievement beside which a whole library-full of cheap Ships of Ishtar & Creep, Shadows remains essentially negligible" -- From Lovecraft's letters: SLV.400-01 (7 Feb(?) 1937)

2.  Moorcock and Cawthorn cite Ship of Ishtar as one of Merritt's best works in Fantasy: The 100 Best Books - curiously, quite at odds with Lovecraft's assessment of the work as representing the corruption of the periodicals (see the quote above) - and in 1985 a major collection of Merritt's work was published, including poems, essays and writings about him by others.

3. As just one example, Hayakawa Bunko published Seiji Dan's translation of The Snake Mother as one of their "classic SF" collection in 1971: cat.# SF0020 - sadly Hayakawa doesn't seem to still have this item on catalog - however a translation of People of the Pit by Jitsuko Haneda was published by Asahi Sonoda in 1986.

4. Seriously - the guy was popular:

5. Enduring enough that despite The Face in the Abyss being published in 1931, Snake Mother herself was the subject of winning costumes at least twice long afterwards - Myrtle Jones won the Pacificon masquerade with her Snake Mother costume in 1946, and Kathy Sanders appeared in the same guise - but with hand maidens! - at Westercon in 1980.

6. The difference of course is that many of these modern writers are aiming for something rather more like prose poetry - yes, the language is rich and poetic, but it sometimes seems almost as though "plot" has fallen out of fashion.

7. A scan of Amazon - which was subsequently contradicted by the discovery of a Merritt omnibus available on Google Play.

8. But have yet to expand on as promised - I'm working on it, I swear.

9. In his essay "Science Fiction in the Fifties: The Real Golden Age

10. Even Campbell had a thing for telepathy and the like for a while.

11. Interestingly, it occurs to me that the big box "we have everything" bookstores like Chapters and Barnes & Noble were late in expanding to the UK - though it's obviously a franchise chain, I don't recall W.H. Smith having the same kind of approach at all - and perhaps this explains the fact that British imprints seem to have adopted firm divisions a bit later, if my admittedly porous memory of the UK in the 80s can be relied on.

12. And Lovecraft as well, actually - his popularity waned for a while before resurfacing in the horror boom of the 70s.

13. As an example, when Tor's "Advanced Readings in Dungeons and Dragons" covered Merritt, they raised some concern about treatment of race and women - to be honest, my sense is that while attitudes of the time were of course quite different from today, the truth is that Merritt's treatment of women and minorities was really quite liberal for the period.  In addition to making allowances for social changes over the more than a century since his birth it's probably also important to take into account the fact that he was almost constantly riffing on the "lost civilization" trope standardized by Haggard - as such it's expected that we will have an intrepid explorer (probably a "colonist") who then encounters a variety of "aboriginal" people.  In Dwellers in the Mirage, while a bit patronizing the depiction of First Nations people is quite positive, while the story itself revolves around proto-Aryan invaders who worship a demonic god - it would be simplistic to dismiss Merritt's work as racist.

14. Honestly, I don't think political considerations like worrying about unacceptable attitudes toward race, gender, class etc

Friday, January 8, 2016

Review: Future Visions (anthology)

Speaking of future visions - today is Roy Batty's incept date!
Where are my flying cars? [1]
Back in November, Microsoft came out with a bald-faced marketing vehicle: an anthology of short stories (and one graphic story) written by well-known SF authors following a tour of the Microsoft research labs, available free via a number of ebook dealers listed on Microsoft's own post on the matter. [2] [3]

Now, make no mistake, this is a marketing gimmick.  A number of big-name SF authors had tours of Microsoft's facilities, almost certainly paid for (possibly including an honorarium) in return for which they were expected to provide stories that tied in with some of the things Microsoft showed them [4] - for which you can bet they were paid.

With all this in mind, you could be forgiven for assuming that the stories would be forced at best, half-hearted at worst.  I admit I went into this book with cynical assumptions.

Well, we're all wrong.

There are several very strong stories in this collection that are definitely worth the while of any hard-core SF fan.  It's disappointing that so many of the stories seem to be focused on MS's natural language real-time translation solutions (as impressive as that technology is) but even so there are some really amazing stories here.

"Hello, Hello" by Seanan McGuire.
I'll confess - I haven't read that much of McGuire's work, but this story makes me want to rectify that.  This is an interesting little puzzle story that revolves around real-time translation.  Although parts of it seem a little forced to me, the "big idea" at the core is an interesting one that genuinely surprised me at the end, as I was busy spinning theories to solve the mystery in quite the wrong direction.  It's hard to say how to categorize this story, but I'll call it hard soc.sci SF, I think.  I'll give it 3.5 out of 5, I think - definitely above average in terms of voice and engagement with the idea. 

"The Machine Starts" by Greg Bear.
This is definitely one of my two favourites in this anthology - it's a little further out there than most of the others, but the layering and engagement with a difficult idea (quantum computing) is right up where I expect it from Greg Bear (I may be biased as he's one of my top ten authors). In some senses, I suppose the "big idea" here is actually a bit overdone, but I love the way Bear has engaged with it in a solid hard SF of the usual gears and gluons variety.  I give this one at least 4 out of 5, and am tempted to go right to the top of the scale.

"Skin in the Game" by Elizabeth Bear
I spent a lot of this story wishing it was part of something longer - it's hard SF again, but this time it has a strong cyberpunk feel to it.  I confess I found the development of the protagonist a bit lacking, particularly in terms of emotion and relationships (which play such an important part in the story) and can't help thinking it would have worked better as a longer piece.  I do like the idea of the main protagonist though, and although the emotion recording tech that lies at the heart of things is pretty much off the shelf for cyberpunk enthusiasts it gets engaged in an interesting way.  Actually, come to think of it I'd rather like to see more stories in this vein featuring this protagonist.  Another 3.5 out of 5.

"Machine Learning" by Nancy Kress
This one is a tear jerker (or at least it was for me) there are a couple of awkward moments where it's obvious Kress is struggling to tie two parts of the story together - again, I wonder if it might have worked better as a longer piece - but they're fleeting, and they don't harm the story in the long run.  I did wish a bit for a longer run up developing the protagonist's inner state, but the rapid development in the second half of the story does work, and powerfully.  Unfortunately, the other major characters (and the protagonist's relationship with them) really don't get the page time they deserve, which leads to them being a bit cut out in comparison to the protagonist (again, a sign the story might be bigger than the word limit allows for), but in a short this isn't such a major failing for the plot. This is my other favourite from the anthology, so it goes up with Greg Bear's effort at at least 4 out of 5.

"Riding with the Duke" by Jack McDevitt
The idea here is very interesting, and the story is quite well done - but it just doesn't have the power that the earlier stories do and it suffers coming after them.  More importantly though, the ending is unsatisfying, and the tech being presented doesn't have a very important part to play in the story, which is disappointing.  This is one of the few in the anthology that sounds a bit forced, as though the author was searching for an idea that he didn't think everyone else would be doing but didn't quite know what to do with it other than to stick it in an otherwise ordinary story.  As a story it works, but it's just not the kind of "big idea" piece the others are.  I give this one only 3 out of 5.

"A Cop's Eye" by Blue Delliquanti & Michele Rosenthal
I'm not a big graphic novel fan, which probably colours my sense of this story, but to be honest it was disappointing.  The ideas floated are interesting, but the piece almost reads like the kind of illustrated information pamphlets I might find at my town office here in Japan - it really doesn't engage very closely with the implications of the technologies presented, and on top of that the plot itself seems shallow and rushed.  This is of course partly the problem of trying to fit the story into a space limitation, but a large part seems to be simply trying to pack too much into one piece.  Sadly, I'm forced to give it no more than 3 out of 5 - and while I want to be charitable I'm tempted to go lower.

"Looking for Gordo" by Robert J. Sawyer
This is a novel approach to a first contact novel, which scores points for me, but the framing of the story seems very artificial which pulls it back down again.  Likewise, the concept of the alien is by turns refreshingly novel (not just another plasticine-foreheaded humanoid) and stock (interaction is just too human).  The most interesting aspect of the story has got to be the way in which contact gets made, and this is almost certainly the "big idea" that Sawyer took away from his tour at Microsoft.  Like McDevitt's effort, it looks to me like a struggle to find something not everyone would write about gone slightly wrong.  This one, though, is definitely more science fictiony than "Riding with the Duke" and in terms of basic entertainment value it definitely comes through.  Another one at 3 out of 5.

"The Tell" by David Brin
Who doesn't like the idea of a stage illusionist as a combination hoax debunker and Mission Impossible agent?  The ideas here are good, as is the main character, and the story itself seems strong though again it seems shoehorned into a format too small for it.  The main problem I had with this one was the fact the story is slathered over with Brin's own futurism obsessions - this is just too much message for the carrying capacity of a story this length.  As a novel?  Maybe.  But as it is, the messaging rubs me the wrong way.  On top of that, the "big idea" portion comes at us seemingly out of nowhere near the end.  When you sit to think about it a bit, you can see where it comes from, but it still feels too abrupt - again, this might work better as a longer story.  I'll give it 3.5 out of 5.

"Another Word for World" by Ann Leckie
I really liked this story for the main fact that it's just the only one that isn't stuck in low earth orbit - Leckie provides us with a real outer space adventure that revolves around wilderness survival on an alien world and translator technologies.  Best of all, the tech turns into a key to one of the mysteries that arises in the story.  Like some of the others, this story feels a bit unsatisfying because the real story is larger than the space allotted to it - but Leckie makes it work by not trying to pack the whole thing in.  Instead, she gives us what feels a bit like a fragment of something larger - and actually it would be interesting to see what that larger work looked like.  The two main characters are interesting, and there's potential for some engaging interaction there that just doesn't have time to develop in the context of this short story, and the hints of the wider world are tantalizing but we never quite get enough information to be satisfied.  I'll give it 3.5 out of 5.

So there you have it - all the stories are interesting, and while there are a couple that seem a little flat (and the graphic story really didn't work for me that well) there are also a few that are quite good and two that to my mind are outstanding - in fact, I would considering nominating Greg Bear's story in the 2016 Hugos.  

For the price, you're missing out if you don't put aside the time to read this one, I'm telling you!


1. As it happens: 

2. There are a couple of interesting omissions from that list of dealers, actually...

3. The book itself was produced for Microsoft by Melcher Media according to the information provided to Amazon - Melcher does quite a lot of corporate work, and truth be told they're probably the ones who did all the heavy lifting in deciding who to invite and organizing it all.

4. And if you think the people responsible didn't make strategic decisions as to exactly which projects they would show off in order to give the impression of being a truly cutting edge R&D facility I have a bridge you may be interested in.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

The messy death of WSFS Inc

Early in 2016, a number of mystery photos clearly of the 14th World Science Fiction Convention (NyCon II) held in 1956 were posted to Flickr with a call for fandom to step up and help identify those pictured - as I posted here, quite a few of the faces have already been identified.

As I was going through those photos and picking out the people who had been identified for my collation post, I recalled the two scandals which were at the root of the death of the World Science Fiction Society (WSFS), Inc, one of which I mentioned in passing the other day.

I should hasten to say that I wasn't there (indeed, wasn't anywhere as far as I know in the 1950s, which was roughly when my parents were preparing for their O-levels) and nor am I particularly involved with Worldcon matters beyond lining the Hugo committee's pockets with silver for the privilege of voting, so much of this is hearsay or gleaned from a variety of online and print sources over the years, but for the benefit of those not initiated I thought I'd summarize what seems to have happened here - I think this is topical for Worldcon matters right now because the ill-feelings that arose from this case caused acrimony in fandom that lasted 50 years and I often wonder if the memory of some of the things that some have speculated lie beneath the acrimony might be playing into the hostility between certain factions today.

And so, the tale:

WSFS, Inc.

Our story begins with the ill-fated establishment of WSFS, Inc., a name that still causes furrowed brows in some quarters.

WSFS, Inc. as an entity actually began at Philcon II in 1953.  Up until that point, the convention organizing committee was very much a grassroots, cooperative fan affair and there was some talk about the risk to individual fans in the event of cash shortfalls - the incorporation of an entity to handle business matters was intended to make things "safer" in that a corporation could declare bankruptcy.  As things had previously been organized, individual fans could theoretically be sued for shortfalls in the event the con ran out of money to pay service providers, and of course as always the average participating fan wasn't so wealthy that this sort of risk was insubstantial.  For context, there was a movement at the time to try to build conventions up, and larger conventions would mean higher costs - a shortfall of just a few percent could leave the organizing fans with a sizable private debt to pay, so going forward the financial risk was very real.  After several years of establishment and growth in support, WSFS, Inc. was actually voted into authority over the whole Worldcon deal at NyCon II in 1956 - the very con from which these new photos come from!

Now, despite the promises made by the whole incorporation movement, history tells us that in fact the two largest Worldcons that were organized under the WFSF, Inc. banner - NyCon II in 1956 and LonCon in 1957 - both ran in the red, with no involvement from WFSF, Inc. to "protect" the organizing fans. Which brings us to...

NyCon II

NyCon II was a big affair for WFSF, Inc. in that this was the con at which the corporation was voted into authority as the enduring entity of SF fandom as originally promised in the years since 1953. That said, the matter was by no means without question - in fact, society bigwig George Raybin reportedly "threatened" that if the ordinary business meeting (where all attendees could vote) failed to pass the motion then the Society would get together a group of pro voting con-committee members who would do it anyway.  Fannish community being what it is, this was naturally resented and given that one of the main features of having such an entity at the heart of Worldcon affairs - the financial security - didn't even materialize when NyCon II went into the red and couldn't reimburse certain organizers (notably Frank Dietz (pictured!), Belle Dietz, and George Raybin) who went out of pocket it's unsurprising that ill-will was generated.  Indeed, this is one of the events that planted the seeds of the accusation of empire building that still plague Worldcon fandom today.

But wait!  The scandal isn't finished yet!

The Plane Trip

Now, NyCon II was chaired by David Kyle [1] (also pictured!) - this will become relevant shortly, however for the time being perhaps the most relevant dimension is that he stepped forward to assist in organizing the USAian contingent's travel to LonCon in 1957.  In order to facilitate travel, the idea was that a plane would be chartered, and Dave Kyle volunteered to organize it.  In the process, it became clear that the airline wouldn't accept the risk of chartering to an individual on the promise of future payments by other individuals, so to handle the issue Dave presented himself as "President, London Trip Fund, of the WSFS Inc." and this is where things started to get complicated.

Other members of WSFS - mainly the Dietzes and George Raybin were concerned that this put WSFS, Inc. in the position of being legally responsible, so they insisted on coming in on a committee with Dave Kyle to oversee the fund, though in practice Dave apparently continued to do all the main work along with Ruth Landis (then serving as secretary of the Fund).

Further complication arose when the LonCon organizers sought a list of those who had paid at least in part for the trip to the 1957 convention in the UK, and recieved no reply from Ruth Landis.  This led to them contacting other members of the committee, who extracted a partial list from Ruth in what Dave Kyle would later characterize as "an infamous inquisition" - and the inter-personal tensions raised over these events further led to them insisting that Raybin be listed as co-signer for the bank account at which the funds were being held - "in case of emergency"

Frictions increased, but the trip went ahead - though in the end there was also bad feeling because of the number of non-con-goers who ended up on the flight...and also because, as the LonCon trip was also serving as Ruth and Dave's honeymoon, there was a movement to gift them the $5 deposits (which had been supposed to be refunded) each passenger gave to secure seats on the flight as a wedding present.  No doubt the number of travellers who left the con early and stiffed the organization for the cost of their guaranteed hotel bookings was no small part of the acrimony either.

And so, we come to:

The Lawsuit

In the end, NyCon II was in the red, with some committee members out of pocket to cover costs - LonCon was in the red as well - and between inter-personal issues and friction over funds surrounding the Plane Trip tempers were high.  In the end, Frank and Belle Dietz and George Raybin demanded to be reimbursed by Dave Kyle for about $100 in unpaid costs from their time working at the 1956 NyCon II (Frank, who was known for making audio recordings of various fandom events, was Recorder-Historian, Belle had been Secretary, and Raybin was Legal Officer that year).  Kyle refused, so the three filed suit and attached his bank account as penalty.

Kyle was, to say the least, annoyed.  He filed counter suit for $25,000, claiming damage to his reputation.  The three were undeterred, however, and counter-counter sued for the same amount.  Harsh words went into print on both sides,   Kyle upped the ante to $35,000.

The thing dragged on, and at last fandom had had enough of it - some did in fact come in on the side of the WSFS and the Dietzes, but the Falascas (also pictured!) brought the legality of the WSFS Inc entity into question and general disgust over both the general offense of bringing legal action into it [2] and the scale the dispute had reached - the sums being claimed were at that time enormous, and likely to put an average fan in debt for many years.

The Death of WSFS, Inc.

The lawsuit contenders were in a bind - there wasn't a way to get out of the situation that wouldn't make everyone look awful.  The Falascas [3] and another group known as the Berkeley Bhoys [4] put on the pressure by linking the fracas to the whole idea of WSFS, Inc. and in the end the situation came to a head in the context of the 1958 SoLaCon - anti WSFS, Inc. sentiment was running so high that the con committee announced via the Chair Anna Moffatt that they would not be associating SoLaCon with the WSFS at all - indeed, at the business meeting where the announcement was made, it was reportedly greeted with cheers.

Now, since SoLaCon wasn't in fact associated with WSFS as a result of this, they couldn't table any motions directly impacting the organization themselves, but the result was a motion that the directors be called to dissolve WSFS, Inc.  According to the Fancyclopedia 3 article on the matter, as of 1959 it was unclear what exactly this meant but it's obvious that WSFS, Inc. was no longer a viable organ at that time, as even then there was comment that it was unlikely to ever again play a significant role in fandom.

And indeed, WSFS, Inc. as an extant "thing" was largely gone six months later.

So what now?

Well, the WSFS itself is obviously alive and well - the corporate organ that was created in the 50s is long gone, and in fact the very idea of such an entity to handle WSFS affairs seems to be a prickly one in fandom - I think this is illustrated by Kevin Standlee's comment in his explanation of the Mark Protection Commitee:

Who owns WSFS's intellectual property? Specifically, who owns the service marks (similar to trademarks) on "Worldcon," "Hugo Award," and so forth. WSFS saw the need to obtain protection for its marks in the 1980s, and had they not done so, anyone could set up their own "Worldcon" or "Hugo Awards." (Sometimes it seems like people are doing just that, but I'm getting ahead of the story.) But who would register and own the marks? Although individual Worldcons are generally run by corporate entities (usually non-profit corporations or their equivalents outside the USA), you couldn't have an individual Worldcon register the marks, because they only have the right to use those marks for a limited period of time covering their own Worldcon. And if you let any particular Worldcon-running non-profit own the marks, you've effectively made the WSFS Inc. by stealth. [5]
So - there is no WSFS, Inc. What happened in the fallout of the WSFS, Inc. fiasco was that SoLaCon operated unassociated, and the next Worldcon location - Detention, held in Detroit - was voted on by attendees to that convention.  As such, that convention was unassociated as well.

And to this day, the mantle of "Worldcon" and membership in WSFS passes from con to con every year, thus the complex web of relationships and ad hoc committees that rely so much on the constant core of the WSFS community.  But I dare say the tremors are still felt when the old-timers talk about certain topics.


1. Interestingly, Kyle was also one of the infamous New York Futurians, who were essentially sympathetic to communist efforts in Spain and intensely anti-Nazi...and who were at the center of some other scandals, including the various Exclusion Acts, which of course is another matter of scandal and long-standing fan feud.  I find this curious considering that Kyle is also the one who tried to prevent the Balcony Insurgents from listening to the guest of honor banquet speeches because they hadn't paid the $7 banquet fee - an odd position for someone who may have been a Bolshevist at the time.

2. People questioned whether "mundanes" could even understand the esoteric world of fandom well enough to render a fair judgement, not to mention the general ungentlemanly tone of such an approach.

3. The Falascas expressed their displeasure in detail in their three issue fanzine Fandom's Burden

4. The fan community of the Bay area, specifically those individuals most involved in producing the FANAC fanzine: Terry Carr, Ron Ellik (pictured!), Carl Brandon, Dave Rike, and Peter Graham are the usual names mentioned.

5. The whole article is here for those interested in the details of Worldcon matters:

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

A Hugo Mystery! Sleuths wanted!

What a find!

Flickr user Cate came across a collection of old snapshots at a thrift store, and immediately knew there was something special about them - they were from the 14th World Science Fiction Society convention, held in New York in 1956![1]

See Cate's scan of the photos here:

(Discovered by me via - additional text there)

Amazingly, in only a few days quite a lot of names have already been pinned to these photos, with much of the heavy lifting being done by Astrid Anderson Bear and Robert Silverberg themselves!

As of this writing, we have the following identifications:

Forrest J Ackerman

Forrest J Ackerman (no period after the J please!) was a fixture of the fan community at the time, a notoriously voracious SF memorabilia collector, and literary agent for Asimov, Bradbury, Hubbard and others.  Amazingly, he missed only 2 Worldcons during his lifetime, so I suppose it's hardly surprising to find him in this random collection of photos!

Anthony Boucher
Anthony Boucher was editor of F&SF at the time of this con, and was also an author of mystery stories.

John W. Campbell
Campbell was of course editor of Astounding at this time (later to be called Analog as we all know, right?) and the magazine got the Hugo for best pro magazine that year.

Lin Carter
Lin Carter isn't as well known today as he ought to be, but until his death in 1988 he was an amazingly prolific writer with some great work on his bibliography - though in 1956 he didn't actually win any awards, being up against some pretty stiff competition.  Also, he actually hadn't published that much in the 50s - his first published novel didn't come until The Wizard of Lemuria which came out in 1965 following mentorship by L. Sprague de Camp, who went on to write collaboratively with Carter on a number of Conan stories.

Ted Carnell
   Ted Carnell - a fan and deeply involved in organization.

Jean Carroll

Jean Carroll - apparently closely involved with fandom at the time, but I'm afraid I don't know much about her and can only find brief references to her in the Journal.  Anyone with more info?

Arthur C. Clarke

Clarke was the guest of honor at NyCon II (and also won a Hugo for best short that year, for his story "The Star" published in Infinity)

Hal Clement

Hal Clement is another name you don't hear very much these days, despite the fact he was inducted as a Hall of Famer back in 1998 - in the day he wrote hard SF, and what I always noticed most was how hard he worked to make his alternative worlds scientifically plausible - no giant mono-ecologies for Hal!

L. Sprague de Camp
Does this gentleman really need introduction?  Between his Conan stories and otherwise enormous bibliography I'm sure most serious SF readers have come across him often.  The most interesting thing about him though might be that in an era when SF was very much either fantastic planetary romances or hard speculative SF adventures (rockets on the cover and all that) his interests in classical history and linguistics really come through in his world-building.

Frank Dietz

Frank Dietz is really not someone most people would know of outside of fandom, unfortunately.  His presence here is notable, however, because Dietz and George Raybin sued NyCon II chair David Kyle in 1958 in a dispute over funds, which ultimately led to the death of the World Science Fiction Society.  He also founded the famous Lunarians society in 1956, and was probably drumming up members
while not on camera! (also, responsible for the (in)famous party in room 770 which lies behind the name of online fanzine File 770 curated by Mike Glyer)

Ron Ellik
 I'm not sure what Ron Ellik was notable for in 1956, but he was certainly active in fandom and in 1958 he was one of the founders of the fanzine Fanac, which promptly won an award for best fanzine in 1959.

Pat Ellington
Once again, I'm not quite sure what Pat Ellington was noted for other than fandom at this time, but she later (1963) started a fanzine named Kim Chi.

Harlan Ellison
Here's a shot of Ellison right near the beginning of his career!  He was already establishing himself of course, but much of his career was still far ahead of him.  Later, of course, he was noted for his controversial opinions and also for editing the Dangerous Visions anthologies.  If you haven't read any of Ellison's work from the 60s and early 70s you're really missing something!

Lloyd Eschbach
Eschbach is another name rarely heard these days.  To be honest, I'm not much familiar with his work - some of which is now in the public domain - but what he's most known for might be his work on the Cosmos series, and for his comment in his autobiography that L. Ron Hubbard had commented to him about wanting to found a religion because "that's where the money is."

Nick Falasca

Nick Falasca is another mostly forgotten name.  Together with his wife of the time Noreen (who actually seems to be better remembered) he co-chaired the 1955 Worldcon in Cleveland, and later (1958) they also wrote Fandom's Burden, in which they expressed deep dissatisfaction with the WSFS (this seems to be a theme).

Ben Jason
Ben Jason aka Benedict Jablonski was one of the co-designers of the Hugo Award (the rocket itself)

David Kyle

David Kyle was the chair of NyCon II in 1956, and was emboiled in scandal over not only funds (see above for the lawsuit) but also for opposition to fans using the balcony overlooking the Hugo Award ceremony, leading to the in-group recognition signal "Dave Kyle says you can't sit here" which really sort of sums up a lot of fandom if you think about it.

Willy Ley

Willy Ley got the Hugo for best feature writer in 1956, and was a well known space flight advocate and science writer.

Bob Madle
A fan of note, but I'm not quite sure what his influence was.

Robert Silverberg

Silverberg was awarded the Hugo for "most promising new author" (now John W. Campbell Award) in 1956, and, well, obviously he was promising indeed!

Roger Sims
 Roger Sims - deeply involved in fandom.

E.E. "Doc" Smith
OK seriously, if you don't know who Doc Smith is get out there and read the Lensman series.  Smith started writing in the 20s and was a major fixture in the genre community until his death in 1965 - his work on Lensman series and other writing earn him the title "father of space opera" though perhaps that doesn't do enough to reflect his influence.

J Ben Stark
Later to be co-chair of Worldcon 26 in 1968, but I don't know much more about him.

Jams Taurasi
James Taurasi was one of the people who started it all, being a co-organizer of the FIRST Worldcon in 1939.

Wilson Tucker

Not an author I'm familiar with unfortunately, but it seems he was deeply involved in the development of the genre and particularly criticism - coining terms like Space Opera and the like.

Well, that's it - a snapshot of history as it were!  There are still many faces unaccounted for in the photos, so if you're the sort who might be able to identify people head on over and add your voice!


1. This is of course NyCon II, held August 31 – September 3