Ahrvid Engholm, a SF Swedish Fan on an Anglocentric Fantasy Throne
Q: If a fanzine editor sneezes, what do you say?
A: Gestetner! (1)
The New York Art Book Fair recently had an interesting historical fanzine exhibition, covering 1941-1970 (check eg http://io9.com/vintage-zine-art-is-like-staring-into-the-dreams-of-a-l-1639203140 ), compiled by the Boo Horray gallery and Johan Kugelberg. Among the fanzines we find for instance the Swedish fanzine Cactus No 4 (first in the previous link), with a cover by Bo Stenfors (2), known for his fine stencil illo work. Check also http://store.boo-hooray.com/lenny-kaye-sci-fi-p/bh-lksf-1.htm
Johan Kugelberg happens to be a 30+ years back fannish acquaintance of mine. He borrowed the fanzines from Lenny Kaye of Patti Smith’s band, who was once involved in sf fandom himself. And Kugelberg has also done his fanational mimeotary service (3) as he (duly noted in my Fandbook www.lysator.liu.se/~unicorn/fandom/fanzines/fandboken/0.91.txt (4) ) around 1982 was among those starting a local sf club, Nolaskogs Rhymd och Rhaketsällskap (“The Nolaskog Shpace and Rhocket Society“), even getting his hands dirty with this group’s very own mimeograph, named Lhycklige Ture (“Hhappy Ture“) (5). That was northern Sweden in the 1980’s and he’s returning to the homeland once in a while. I last met him a couple of years ago on one of the incredibly strange music club evenings of Sunkit (6). He’s moved to New York City in the late 1980’s, and is working with art, music and other strange things, which usually won’t involve getting a LoC (7) from A Engholm. This may be an exception.
Fanzine article in Vice magazine
What I want to talk about a bit is Johan Kugelberg’s views on the fanzine world, as expressed in his piece in Vice magazine, “Science-fiction fanzines before the future got broken”, but also the phenomenon of fanzines in general and culture trends. For things I quote, see his article here: http://www.vice.com/read/Science-fiction-fanzines-before-the-future-got-broken-926
To business. For instance I don’t agree with Kugelberg’s idea that fanzines were “often deeply bizarre” from “subcultural weirdos”, but I do agree when he finds parallels “between the mechanics of 20th century subcultures, and the consumption of ideas, ideology, and identity on the goddamn internet”.
Weirdos? Bizarre? When printed fanzines were common – they are much rarer now, going extinct – 95% of those from science fiction fandom could probably be picked up by anyone, who also would understand 95% of the contents. (And the 5% crudzines were Mostly Harmless (8).) There would be some internal slang and references (BNF, Roscoe, the Tucker Hotel, Ghoodminton, WAHF, (9) etc) but that’s not the mark of something “bizarre”, only of something common in a group specialising in a certain field.
And most people behind those publications were perfectly normal teenagers (and older), not “weirdos”. To me, and most others I believe, a weirdo is someone who, for example, for real believes that the President of the USA is a lizard in disguise or spends millions of dollars to build a mansion in LEGO…scale 1:1.
Not weird to express yourself
The fanzines came from people who wanted to express themselves and there’s nothing strange or odd or nerdy with that. The word “fanzine” (from “fan magazine”) was coined in 1940 by the American fan Louis Russell Chauvenet, and before this those publications were called things like “fanmags´” or “fanrags”. The first sf fanzine was The Comet, May 1930, edited by Ray Palmer and Walter Dennis (see http://zinewiki.com/The_Comet ), but before this there was a “non-fannish” amateur publishing culture expressed in the Amateur Press Associations, which had been active since the late 1800’s (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amateur_press_association – HP Lovecraft was active in those circles!). The fanzine culture from the 1930’s and on spread through the English speaking world and reached Western Europe after the Second World War. (There wasn’t exactly a political climate for independent amateur magazines in the Old Eastern Europe until after the fall of the Berlin Wall.)
Today there is a tendency to worship everything that can be described as “nerdy” or “geeky”, as if we have forgotten that it is negative, insulting labels! A nerd is someone who knows Pi to 1000 decimals but can’t tie his shoelaces, but it has always been rare to see people of that calibre in sf fandom.
People who like to read a certain genre of literature, like to write, like to publish (and do it themselves), like to discuss, that’s pretty normal people – not weirdos. It’s like writing a blog. Would we call a blog writer a “nerd”?
But Kugelberg is right drawing parallels between early amateur publications and the Internet. I’ve always seen the fanzine world as a “pre-Internet”, but on paper and much slower. There have been plenty of connections between science fiction and early development in the computer world.
SF and computers
The perhaps first home computer (though it was a kit) was named from a science-fiction show on TV (Altair, 1974, name inspired by “Star Trek” (10) ). The perhaps first mailing lists on the Net was SF-Lovers (11) in the late 1970’s. Sf authors had for decades made “predictions” about computers and networking. Asimov wrote about robots and handheld calculators and super computers. Clarke “invented” the communication satellite and Heinlein gave us a self-concious AI named Mike (12). H G Wells himself talked about the “World Brain” information system already in the 1930’s. (13) (I could give hundreds of examples of early connections between computers and the science-fiction world, but I stop here.)
Fanzines worked like blogs, before there were any blogs. (Except that there was “blog” in fandom. It happens to be fanslang for an alcoholic drink… (14) ) LoC columns in the fanzines were like electronic mailing lists. APAs were a bit like web hotels. Fans would have “flame wars”, but they were called “feuds”. Instead of GIFs we had Rotslers or AToms (15) or illustrations from anyone else who could swing a decent stencil stylus.
Though it was much smaller and slower, the functions and attitudes of much of today’s Internet were present in the fanzine world.
1954 Popular Mechanics Magazine
Depression, not WWI
First issue of Amazing Stories (the first magazine devoted solely to science fiction ; April 1926), art by Frank R. Paul. The GoHs are the Europeans H.G.Wells and Jules Verne and Edgar Allen (!?!) Poe
And from where did those attitudes come? Kugelberg claims “the brutal horror of the nastiest of all mechanical wars. That the subcultures and popular cultural movements of the 1920s and early 1930s were driven by the purest form of white middle class escapism from what World War I had been“.
For me it doesn’t compute. Science fiction in its more modern sense (and its fandom) was born in the USA, which had largely escaped WWI. No, it was the infamous Great Depression! The 1929 stock market crash made millions unemployed (America was hit hard) and it created a market for escapism, but of another kind, an escapism that had room for optimism. The economy can always be fixed and better times will come, touch wood! Besides, teenagers are not unemployed, because they go to school.
Radio shows could could in those times lift you from the grey, humdrum everyday life (it was here we got the first “soap operas” (16), since soap companies often sponsored the shows). And we had the pulp magazines, hundreds of them in the newsstands on the streets, with inviting cover illustrations in all colours, bug-eyed monsters with green slime and lightly dressed girls (extra genes in the X chromosome make women’s skin resistant to vacuum and gamma rays of space) and blasting rayguns and… Gosh Wow Boy-oh-boy! (17)
Drawn to the extremes
But it was also a time of political uncertainty. The socialist system of the USSR hadn’t yet unveiled its ugly face (or those who saw glimpses refused to believe it) and some – I wouldn’t say huge crowds, though – leaned towards what we call the Left, eg many in the New York Futurians group (18). I have read about “modernist” literary groups in Sweden, and it was the same there. Science fiction almost didn’t exist here, but someone like Karin Boye and many of her friends were for instance affiliated to the dark red group Clarté (in 1940 she published the dystopian novel Kallocain (19), so she was thinking in sf terms).
Others went dark brown, eg a future member of the Swedish Academy was involved with a tiny Swedish Nazi party. Bad economy in society made people (some of them at least) dream of new, glorious political systems that would solve everything. But most sf fans were “technocrats” dreaming of new inventions, new frontiers in space, not so much dreams around politics – but of spaceships, atomic power, robots. Just as the air waves offered soap operas, the sf pulps had their space operas.
But Kugelberg is right when he notes that “in the wake of World War II, science fiction and science-fiction fandom continued to offer escapism and solace“. WWII was even worse, with death tolls perhaps 3x that of WWI, concentration camps, atomic bombs, and the US was quite heavily involved in the war this time. From what I know about the media output during the 1950s, it was more optimistic than ever. Atomic power had arrived and the space age was just around the corner. Detroit produced cars with glittering chrome and fins, looking like spaceships. Jet liners crossed the oceans in hours. Penicillin promised to end most diseases. The 1950’s was the most optimistic decade in modern history, I believe.
Bad becomes good
Could it be that the 1940’s had been so bad that there was no more room on the scale for badness, and the dial had no other choice than to turn at the bottom and rotate back to “good”? After WWI, a big Depression and a huge WWII, our collective sensory systems were exhausted when it came to badness, and could only register everything that was nice. Maybe people turned to optimism in silent protest against all the badness.
Kugelberg notes how “avant garde thought of any generation becomes norm for the ones that come after” (referring to H. D. Thoreau, but how would he know as he sat in his hut in the woods? – possibly an inspiration for Ted “Unabomber” Kaczynski…). This is basically correct. Let’s take music:
Jazz was once considered jangling, worthless sounds from the dark jungles (Swedish music critics didn’t hesitate to use the N-word too), but after a few decades it became Art Music. Instead it was Elvis the Pelvis and rock and pop that became the big threat to the teenage part of humanity. Then came the Beatles, ABBA, Michael Jackson and many more – they are played in concert halls with arrangements for a symphony orchestra today. The next enemy became hip hop and rap music, which I personally don’t like but I note that they now get cultural grants and good reviews and I’m sure that glittering medals from Congress or Her Majesty are in the mail.
Anti-sf Maginot line breached
Science fiction has also been one of the hate objects of the high-brow culture world, like the literature institutions of universities, the reviewers on the culture pages of the big newspapers and so on. 20-25 years ago no Swedish universities (AFAIK) had courses in that “g literature” (“g” as in “genre” or “gutter” – yes, gutter literature was a common description!). It was slightly better in the US, where the Maginot (20) defence against literature that happened to be popular and entertaining (that something entertains is worst of all!) was breached in the 1970’s or 80’s. It has recently become better in Sweden too. Our cultural elite is just a little bit more senile and stubborn. I have myself the last 4-5 years taken university courses in crime, horror and science fiction (small evening courses, just for fun) and in the catalogues I’ve seen there are even courses about Harry Potter to indulge in.
Printed fanzines dying, “sewing machine fandom” not, alas
Kugelberg also wrote: “It takes a fuckload of effort to dress up exactly as Guardians of the Galaxy characters at San Diego Comicon, and it requires tremendous energy to figure out how to operate a stencil duplicator.” Actually, operating a mimeo is ten times easier than any computer with software designed by Bill Gates’ boys, and I have problems with “sewing machine fandom”. Science fiction is lost if that takes over!
You need to have a cognitive distance to the intellectual laboratory that the sf genre is. But if you try to “be” science fiction, dress up as science fiction, you become nearsighted, lose perspectives, and become an infantile, shallow admirer of cheap kitsch, more interested in the fabric of your clothes than the fabric of space-time.
Back to fanzines. I’m afraid that they today are so few printed fanzines they can no longer tell us anything meaningful about culture or trends. They are replaced by blogs, Facebook pages, webzines as PDFs (ask me how to join Electronic APA, EAPA! (21) ) and everything else on the Internet today. (I have myself turned my newszine SF-Journalen into a Nordic sf/f/fandom Twitter news service https://twitter.com/SFJ . ) The “fanzine culture” from days in the past has merged with the ‘Net into a huge blob which is a big electronic mess.
And the only one to keep track of it all is NSA – unfortunately. You know the story of Snowden and the Seven Data Miners…
(1) I’ll explain some things in notes. Gestetner is a well known mimeograph brand – here an alternative to “gesundheit!”. But I used a Rex Rotary D490 (still around in a corner somwhere) which looks like this: http://188.8.131.52/carlotta/web/object/208981
(2) Bo Stenfors, illustrator, fanzine publisher etc, active in Swedish fandom from the 1950’s and on, TAFF candidate in 1966, etc. Known for “spicy” fanzines like Sexy Venus and Candy F, with covers showing sexy space girls. See http://www.ebay.com/itm/Sexy-Venus-Pin-Up-Fanzine-Swedish-Djursholm-1-OOP-RARE-/150503503171
(3) An attempt to make a pun out of “national military service”…
(4) A sort of “fancyclopedia” about Swedish fandom up to ca 1992 – unfortunately for you it is in Swedish.
(5) A silent, extra “h” in words has long been considered fannish.
(6) http://www.sunkit.com/ , a club for weird music (info in Swedish, though).
(7) Letter of Comment to a fanzine, published in LoCols (LoC columns).
(8) From Douglas Adams. According to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Earth is “mostly harmless”.
(9) BNF = Big Name Fan, Roscoe = a fannish Ghod, the Tucker Hotel = Bob Tucker’s idea of building a permanent Worldcon hotel , Ghoodminton = a game played by the famous Irish Fandom, WAHF = We Also Heard From, mentions of letter writers not given space in the LoCol.
(11) SF-Lovers, by some accounts the oldest mailing list on the ‘Net (started around 1979, when Internet was ARPAnet), in 1990 split into the rec.arts.sf-lovers.* hierarchy for the Usenet news groups. See archive at https://archive.org/details/SFLoversDigestArchive
(12) Arthur C Clarke’s piece about geostationary communications satellites was in the magazine Wireless World, February 1945, see http://lakdiva.org/clarke/1945ww/ . Mike was the intelligent computer in Robert A Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966). Sir Arthur later introduced HAL 9000, in 2001 – A Space Odyssey (the film, and a novel, 1968)
(13) Essays 1936-38, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Brain . The first PEN/H G Wells Lecture on the recent Worldcon, Loncon 3 in London (Aug 14-18) by Audrey Niffenegger, dealt largely with HGW’s concept of the World Brain.
(15) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Rotsler and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Thomson_%28fanzines%29 (BTW, image googling on “William Rotsler” is Not Safe For Work…).
(17) “Gosh Wow Boy-oh-boy” became an infamous phrase in fandom, from a silly article in Time Magazine about the first Worldcon, Nycon, in New York 1939.
(20) The French fixed defence line on the border towards Germany, built in the 1930’s and named after the French Minister of War André Maginot. The Maginot Line didn’t work too well. Hitler just outflanked it.
© Ahrvid Engholm
Ahrvid Engholm is a swedish author, editor, journalist and SF fan.