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Discovering MITSFS

Once upon a time back in the late unlamented twentieth century I discovered the MIT Science Fiction Society, known to all as MITSFS (pronounced mits fiss). At the time I was in the first years of my career as a scientific programmer/numerical analyst. Computers were new in the world and so was I.

At the time I was living in Cambridge and working at the Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratories (AFCRL). Despite its name AFCRL was not actually in Cambridge; rather, it was in Hanscom Air Force Base in Lexington.

In those days I was not yet a science fiction fan. Oh, I had been a voracious reader of the stuff off and on, and I had done a bit of letter hacking in the pulps. However I didn't know any fans and hadn't had any contact with organized fandom. I don't suppose that I even knew anybody who regularly read science fiction.

Two of my fellow programmers were Tech Coeds named Natalie Irbin and Marilyn Wisowaty. In those days a Tech coed was a female who had attended MIT. Tech Coeds were a rare and hardy breed. Tech Coeds were much like Marines - once a Marine, always a Marine - once a Tech Coed, always a Tech Coed. Different vocations, different institutions, same principle. They were both science fiction (SF) readers, though I didn't know that until later.

Marilyn Wisowaty worked in a different department than I did. I was later to discover that she was universally known as Fuzzy Pink, a name that was bestowed upon her by her roommate, Franny Dyro. Fuzzy Pink was a MITSFS member. Later on she got sucked up into fandom and ended up marrying Larry Niven. Niven, for my non SF readers, is a prominent SF author and a millionaire. Unfortunately she had to move to California. I guess a woman can't have everything in a man.

Natalie worked in the same department as I did and we got to know each other. One day she suggested that I should drop in at the MITSFS library and that I might find it interesting.

The MITSFS library was in the basement of MIT's Walker building. Walker Building is on the outskirts of MIT; the basement was host to MITSFS and to WTBS (pronounced witabus), the student radio station. MITSFS and WTBS were student activities, i.e., places where freshmen can spend large amounts of time whilst engaged in flunking out. WTBS ran ads for Nocturnal Aviation, Apple Gunkies (Rhomboidal blue green apple confections machined to exacting tolerances by skilled native craftsmen who take pride in their work), and the General Food Corporation (Food is good for you.) I gather that you can find the radio ads on the web. Everything is on the web.

The library was, ah, on the shabby side. I learned later that much of the furniture had been retrieved from the light bulb farm, aka the city dump, by the likes of Filthy Pierre, aka Irwin Strauss. The men's room was across the hall from the library. From time to time a notice would appear on the bathroom door that read

PAY TOILET
PLEASE PAY
TEN CENTS
ACROSS THE HALL

I don't know if this scam actually produced any dimes, but if they did I am sure they went to a good cause, probably the local coke machine.

I didn't know any of this when I arrived at a gray building on Memorial Drive one evening. I found my way down into the basement and discovered a room filled with bookshelves. This, I said to myself, must be the library and so it was. The fact that Natalie was there served as a little clue. Besides Natalie there were two persons of the male persuasion present. One, a taller, leaner person, was named Peter. The other, not small, but shorter as I recall, with a round face and black hair, was named Tony Lewis. I suppose Natalie introduced me to everyone but at this remove I really cannot be certain.

The atmosphere was strained. Natalie and Peter were at one far end of the room and Tony was at the other. Tony was reading passages from Letters from the Earth out loud. Meantimes Natalie and Peter conducted a desultory conversation enlivened by Natalie making comments about immature males that were directed at the other end of the room. I rather wisely busied myself with examining the contents of the library. Here was more Science Fiction in one place than I had seen in my entire life!

After a while people left and the library closed down. I suppose that Natalie and Peter left first because Tony and I struck up a conversation. As I recall it mostly centered on the fickleness of certain females and why they did the things that they did. I am not the swiftest of understanding, but I had no difficulty deducing which particular female he had in mind. I later learned that Natalie had just dumped Tony for Peter. If my recollection is correct, she timed this for the very day that he was taking his Orals for his PhD. Natalie did not have, perhaps, the kindest of hearts.

In any event Tony and I hit it off, and we meandered off to a late night foodery to have a bite to eat. We immediately became fast friends and have remained so ever since. It has been, ah, an enduring friendship. It's always a bit daunting to realize how many decades one has known someone. It's even more daunting to realize that his daughter is now the age I was then.

MITSFS opened up a whole new world to me. At the time I had friends but not a community. It was an academically based community and I have always had the taint of academia in my soul. There was a whole circle of people who read SF and who had the kind of intellectual interests that SF readers have. Granted that there was a certain element of sophomoric immaturity, but, then I've always felt that maturity is over-rated. I certainly have never felt the need of it in my character.

MITSFS continues much as it was forty odd years ago. Plants still vote. The organizational chart still reeks of bizarre sub committees. Freshmen still discover science fiction and the delights of student activities until they flunk out. Above all MITSFS still holds to its proud motto:

We're not fans. We just read the stuff.


This page was last updated February 1, 2007.

Richard Harter's World
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Hyde County, South Dakota is the Pin Tail Duck Capital of the world. Visit scenic Highmore, SD in 2007!