Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Going Round and Round with Revolution

Pohl (left) & possibly Wollheim (right) look on as Jack
Williamson (center) meets a crowd at Nycon I in 1939.
Photo from Howard DeVore as published by FANAC  

With the closing of nomination ballots coming up (March 31) yet another Hugo season is upon us.

For many fans, the next few months will also be a season of tension and rancor, as the ongoing battle between what might be called “core Worldcon fandom” and “Puppies Sad or Rabid” once again flares up into actual shots fired.[1]

On the one hand, we have the objections of people who consider themselves fans – certainly avid readers and followers of SFF by all accounts – that certain hugely popular authors seem to get passed over at the Hugos in favour of work that simply checks politically popular boxes.  The extreme version of this objection alleges secret cabals (perhaps in the service of shadowy masters deep in the land of Mordor a major publisher) who manipulate the outcome of the Hugos either by organized voting campaigns or perhaps even by directly tweaking the voting system in their favour.

On the other hand, we have the counter-objections of the loyal fen, who demure, claiming that the only shenanigans are on the part of the Puppies and their highly recommended lockstep voting reading lists…claims that at times seem to echo with a curious harmony in the naturally entirely neutral journalism of the mass media.

Frankly, I find the claims on both sides to be laughably extreme.  I have my own thoughts on the actions that led to Vox Day’s ejection from SFWA that I won’t air here [2], but the whole Puppies vs Fandom thing has evolved into a conflict of unprecedented animosity.

Or has it?

The the scale may be larger as a feature of modern technology, but the fact is that this kind of political wrangling is nothing new to Worldcon: way back in the mists of time, at the very first Worldcon in 1939, an eerily similar dispute led to a group of fans being barred from the event entirely.

Cast your mind back to the late 1930s, a world in transition:

The world was finally emerging from a crushing depression, Europe was in turmoil following the Great War and a series of socialist and other revolutions, Hitler’s Germany was on the rise, having successfully annexed both Austria and Czechoslovakia while the great powers dithered, fascism was gaining power not only there but seemingly everywhere in opposition to the socialist wave, and technology was progressing at a break-neck pace.  

Just two months after the grand opening of the New York World’s Fair in 1939, and on the edges of this tumultuous time, the very first Worldcon was held in New York – NyCon I as it was eventually called.

Now, it must be said that this wasn’t by any means the first “con” – that honour goes to what Dave Kyle called The First Eastern Science Fiction Convention [3] [4], which was held in Philadelphia in 1936.  It was also by no means a large affair, mind, being just a visit to the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society (PSFS) by members of the International Scientific Association (ISA), by reports of people who were there involving only a dozen people or fewer. [5] But this was a meeting of the early minds of American SF fandom:
  •       John Michel - NY (who originated the idea of some outing for the NY chapter of the SFL in the first place)
  •           Donald Wollheim - NY (who specifically suggested a visit to Philadelphia)
  •           Milton Rothman – Phil (who hosted the meeting at his home and chaired the meeting)
  •           Fred Pohl – NY (who served as secretary)
  •           Dave Kyle - NY
  •           William Sykora – NY
  •           Herbert Goudket – NY (who was behind the camera for the apocryphal photo)
  •           Robert Madle – Phil
  •           Ossie Train - Phil
  •           And some fellow named Hahn [6] along with, presumably, others to bring the total to about 12.

This is not a mere digression, however, since I suspect the seeds of revolution were planted on that fateful October 22 in 1936.

The key factor here is probably Sykora, who was an enormous fan from the beginning.  He wasn’t just a charter subscriber to Amazing Stories when the eponymous Hugo Gernsback launched it in 1926 but also a core member of a number of early science and SF associations, such as The Scienceers [7], the SFL (GNY branch), the International Cosmos Science Club, and the ISA.  An association of note that Sykora was most emphatically not a member of was the Futurian Society.  And so begins our real story.

 The Futurians numbered quite a few names that are well known in modern Fandom: people like Isaac Asimov, James Blish and his future wife Virginia Kidd, Damon Knight, Judith Merril – and some of the GNY-SFL members who traveled to Philadelphia: John Michel, Fred Pohl, Dave Kyle and Donald Wollheim.

Now, the New York Futurians [8] were remarkably influential, considering that they never really numbered very many, were never  and only lasted about seven years. But they /were/ intense, and differed from the more “ordinary” Gernsbackian SFandom, which insisted that fans and SF authors should ideally strive for the advancement of science – specifically, the Futurians were progressives of the time – Bohemian, anarchistic in organization, prone to free verse in poetry and decadence in literature and art.  They were sympathetic to the anarchist and communist efforts against fascist Franco in Spain (and other Fascists), and themselves defined a Futurian as one who:

“thru SF rise to vision a greater world, a greater future for the whole of mankind, and wishes to utilize his idealistic convictions for aid in a generally cooperative and diverse movement for the betterment of the world along democratic, impersonal, and unselfish lines.” [9]

Though Futurian thought was often referred to as Wollheimianism the idea really originated with John Michel in 1937:

At the 1937 Third Eastern Science Fiction Convention in Philadelphia, Donald Wollheim read a speech penned by Michel entitled “Mutation or Death!” [10] which denounced “the Gernsbackian delusion” of science alone as the way forward: Michel in this speech denounced Mussolini and other fascists, denounced what people might call today “the military industrial complex”, and declared the solidarity of SFandom with “the heroic defenders of Madrid and Shanghai.” – his declaration that SFandom was obligated to join forces to work toward a future utopian world state was taken by many to refer to communism (probably a justified assumption given the congruence between his rhetoric and that of Bolshevik revolutionaries of the era, not to mention Michel’s involvement in the Young Communist League)

This began a(nother) rather rancorous cycle of feuding in US fandom, with Michel and certain other Futurians (notably Donald Wollheim and Fred Pohl) growing increasingly political, which rubbed rather a lot of fandom the wrong way, including solid “Gernsbackian” science first fans such as Sam Moskowitz and William Sykora, the latter being a particular bugbear for the Michelian Futurists for reasons I really don’t understand – I presume simply because he was one of those who most bluntly told the kids to settle down. [11]

Things really came to a head, though, in 1939, at the time of the first official Worldcon, later dubbed Nycon by the inimitable Forrest Ackerman: this convention, being held under the auspices of the New York fandom, was chaired by Futurian nemesis Sam Moskowitz along with two others well hated by the utopians: William Sykora and James Taurasi.

These three men not only disapproved of the injection of politics into SFandom by the Futurians, but were keenly aware of the opinion of other fan organizations and more importantly the fact that the convention was likely to be fairly high profile owing to the fact that the Worlds Fair then going on in New York was themed “The World of Tomorrow” – how could the first ever major science fiction convention /not/ attract attention?  How would it look if brash, outspoken young men and women seemed to be talking (socialist) revolution?

As a result, the Triumvirate (as they were to be called) made a decision later known to fannish historians as “The Great Exclusion Act” to ban Michel, Wollheim, Pohl and others from attending, on account of rumours that they intended to issue yet another manifesto during the proceedings, whether approved or not – a concern that was based on past disruption at the smaller Newark convention in 1938[12] and the discovery of a pamphlet [13] that was written and distributed by fellow Futurian Dave Kyle and others [14].


A dispute in fandom over what SF should be and what it should achieve.  A dispute over what the tone and obligations of fandom should be like.  A dispute, even, over what precisely defines rightfan and wrongfan thinking.

How does that quote go?  Ah yes:
 “History doesn’t always repeat itself.  Sometimes it just screams, 'Why don’t you listen to me?' and lets fly with a big stick.” – John W. Campbell Jr.


1. Metaphorically actual, obviously.

2. No, really.  I think there’s plenty of blame to go around, and while I don’t think I’d enjoy having a drink with the man he’s also been treated to what appears to be an unfair drubbing in the mass media.

3. But which the attendees officially dubbed the Philadelphia Science Fiction Convention in reference to the fact that both the Republican and Democratic national conventions had been held there earlier in the year.

4. And in fact, there’s even some dispute as to whether this was the first: it was a meeting, certainly, and they took the name “convention” for the business meeting, but it may be that the event held by the UK’s LeedsScience Fiction League in January 1937 was the first true “con”.

5. Though John Michel’s account in a fanzine later that year reputedly claims there were only 9 attendees (and he refers to a photo – though I haven’t been able to locate one) Dave Kyle – who was also there – says there were “barely a dozen” in his own recollection of the event .  I like to think of the attendance as being 10±2 with one of the minimal 9 – Herbert Goudket - being a kind of “Schroedinger’s Fan” as he was supposedly there, but not shown in the photo because he was behind the camera.

6. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen Hahn’s given name…er…given, and as a result every time I see or write the name I have the irrepressible image of James Tiberius Kirk expressing his outrage at being outwitted by his ancient nemesis. I feel certain the gentleman in no way resembled Ricardo Montalban, however.

7. Possibly the first SF fanclub ever!

8. Not affiliated with other groups calling themselves Futurians, though the Left Coast group in LA with the same name did apparently move en masse to the Right Coast to join up with them…just in time for the society to collapse as a result of the lawsuit filed by Wollheim in response to “The X Document” – a one shot publication that detailed an internicene conflict among the Futurians of New York.

10. Full text of Michel's manifesto "Mutation or Death" is available here

11. It should be remembered that many of the players in this drama were younger than Michel, who at the time of Nycon 1 in 1939 was only 22 – some of them were still in their teens throughout this controversy!

12. This convention was marred by accusations of high-handed and dictatorial action by the organizers, and various sniping among political factions in fandom…sound familiar?

13. The full text of the famous Yellow Pamphlet is here

14. Who, strangely, despite being the nucleus of the decision to Exclude, was allowed to remain.  All reference to this seems to agree that he was allowed to stay because he was already in the hall…and yet, it appears that some others who were distributing the pamphlet, including Robert Lowndes, Cyril Kornbluth and Jack Gillespie were ejected. I’m at a loss as to what the difference was, unless it was simply that Kyle was physically inside the hall at the time the decision was made, while the others were distributing pamphlets outside.

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