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Are Young People Interested in Early Fan History?

Boskone 57 took place over Valentine’s Day weekend, and as Boston locals we had the great opportunity to attend and participate. This was my first Boskone and David’s first return visit in several years. Team member Sam McDonald made the trip up and joined us for the weekend.

The convention was a blast and I want to congratulate and thank the organizers for an amazing experience. We set up a two-bay exhibit of early fan art, participated in two programs (Activism in Fandom and Fan History for Beginners), and spent a lot of time at our dealer table talking to anyone who would give us their ear about our project. 

Over the course of the convention we had the chance to meet an incredible group of fans. Some we knew already from past conventions or through previous collaborations; some were fans we had only interacted with online through email or discussion groups; and some were entirely new to us. 

Particularly interesting to us, we got to meet and speak with a few younger fans who stopped by the table to talk about the project. Young fans are interesting to us because the audience of people who have been most interested in our work so far is relatively small and skews to an older demographic. We cherish this community of long-time fans with some existing connection to the history we study, but we are also interested in reaching a younger audience who have little to no connection to early fan history.

This begs the question… 

Are Young People Interested in Early Fan History?

This is a question we ask ourselves often..

Although almost none of the First Fans of the 1930s are still with us, we fortunately can learn something of their stories through the people that knew them. This is the core community of collaborators and readers that we have interacted with through the course of this project so far, and is one primary audience for our work. 

But what about, for lack of a better phrase, young people? Do Millennials and Gen Z, born into the chaotic fullness of modern fandom, have any interest in the origin story of the SFF fan community?

For some context, I am a millennial. I was born in 1989, the same year that Hyperion was published and Cyteen won the Hugo for best novel. Cyberpunk was in fashion. The Berlin Wall came down. I read science fiction voraciously growing up and made a lot of friends who were in the same boat, but I think I can speak honestly for us all when I say that we were almost wholly ignorant of science fiction literature before the Golden Age and completely unaware of the history of fandom.

My study of the history of science fiction fandom began when I started to work on First Fandom Experience with David. I knew almost nothing about the genre or its fandom beforehand, save for a few exceptions — Bradbury, “Doc” Smith, Asimov, Pohl, and a few other names stand out. In retrospect I am somewhat embarrassed to have not known anything about Ackerman, Kornbluth, Palmer, Weisinger, and so many others whose work helped build a genre I love and feel very close to.

When talking with the few younger fans who stopped by our table, I learned that their experiences are similar to mine. They are fans and avid readers of the genre, but because they are young they are mostly familiar with the more modern history of the genre and fandom. The same general cast of authors whose work has remained popular over the years stands out as a point of connection, but overall the early history of science fiction and fandom was a mystery.

Two of our interactions at Boskone illustrate this gap.

First, we met a young man (about my age) who was primarily a comic fan. He meandered by the table, something caught his attention, we started talking, and inevitably comics came up. We had our touch point. He was aware of people like Mort Weisinger, but unaware of his involvement in early fandom. He was vaguely aware of the origins of Superman, and we were able to show him the original “Reign of the Superman” story and to talk about Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s early fanzine. He had heard of Ackerman, but didn’t know much about him besides his work from later decades.

We were able to add some color to the history of a genre that he is clearly close to, largely by unpacking the stories of the individuals involved and how they helped shape the industry. 

Second, a young woman who is a student at Harvard stopped by and spoke with us for about an hour on the last day of the convention. She did not seem like an out-and-out science fiction reader, but was interested in the historical nature of our work. She spent some time flipping through the book and connecting things she did not know about to things she did know about, or had at least heard of. She commented on the Great Depression, the history of women in fandom, printing technology, and (of special interest to us) political activism.

Although she had no prior experience with the esoteric history of science fiction fandom in the 1930s, she was still able to connect to it through her general knowledge of history and her interest in topics that are timeless.

So… are young people interested in the history of science fiction fandom?

I believe (or hope?) that most everyone is (or should be) interested in history writ large, To garner interest in a particular facet of history, it’s necessary to make that history accessible and to find the right touch points — the places where people with no prior knowledge can connect with it. 

I find the history of early fandom to be compelling and interesting in its own right.  Anyone, regardless of age, could become interested if the ‘barriers to entry’ are lowered. This history is valuable because it enables readers to contextualize and more fully appreciate their relationship to the genre. Fans of science fiction ought to at least be familiar with the origins of fandom. 

We hope to help revitalize and preserve the early history of science fiction fandom, and we believe we can reach an audience of younger fans who can become interested in and engage with the rich, fascinating stories therein.

On Objectionable Material in Science Fiction History

First Fandom Experience is an archive wrapped in a story. Our goal with this project is to tell a complete and unbiased history of science fiction fandom, primarily using the original artifacts created by the pioneering fans of the 1920s-1940s. These artifacts are a product of their time and, uncensored, they reflect the attitudes and beliefs of the people who created them and the society in which they lived.

Science fiction is inherently progressive, and to a large degree so are its fans. However, there are in this history statements and views expressed by some fans that are objectionable. The period that we cover in this work is marked by racism, sexism, misogyny, anti-Semitism and other bigotries that were ignorant then — but sadly often tolerated — and are properly seen as offensive today. Recent attention has been given to this issue by Jeannette Ng in her acceptance speech for what is now called the Astounding Award for Best New Writer.

As historians, we make no attempt to shy away from or cover up these views, nor do we make any attempt to justify or rationalize them. They are part of the story. It’s beyond the scope of this project to address these issues generally, but we aim to discuss them openly as they relate to early fandom. We will do our best to contextualize manifestations as they present themselves, and we will dedicate space in the project to deeper exploration of relevant examples.

Above all, this is a conversation we want to keep going with our audience of interested fans and historians. We encourage anyone to connect with us about our coverage, or lack thereof, of these topics.

A Conversation with Erle M. Korshak

We had the honor of speaking with Erle M. Korshak, one of the original First Fans of science fiction, at the 2019 Windy City Pulp and Paper Convention. Korshak was a significant player in the fan community, having helped organize the second World Science Fiction Convention (“Chicon”) in 1940.

See a short video of our talk with Korshak below.

Serendipity! Whilst digging through a box of old fanzines at the Curious Book Shop booth (thanks, Ray Walsh), we found a nice copy of the 1940 Chicon Program Booklet. Erle was gracious enough to add his autograph.