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February 2006

There and back again – a fan’s journey

This essay is divided into two parts. The first part, Science Fiction and Fandom, written in 1978 was an explanation of how I came to be a SF fan, and how I felt about it. The second part, What happened afterwards, written now (2006) tells what happened afterwards SF-fanwise, and has some thoughts about that. Afterthought notes are in red.

Science Fiction and Fandom

Recnet studies in the physiology and psychology of addiction have shown that the SF addict is born an addict. Until he makes his first major encounter with SF he (or she, although the vast (snicker) majority of fans are male) remains a latent addict. Once contact is made, however, addiction is automatic and violent. Typically, first contact addiction is followed by a period of intense SF consumption that will eventually decay into mild or complete loss of interest. People who have lost all interest in Science Fiction and never read it anymore are known as Science Fictions fans…

Except for the fact that these studies are completely fictitious they would seem to cover my own case, except to the extent that they do not. All of which is a complicated way of saying that I was attracted to SF at an early age and took to it immediately.

I remember the first SF magazine that I ever read. It was a wartime pulp (wartime = WW II) that was in a box of magazines at a relative’s place. The only thing I remember that it was a story about how the Germans and Japanese had been exiled to separate asteroids after the war. I have no notion which magazine it was; if anyone can recall it for me I would appreciate it.

It wasn’t until I was in high school, however, that I really discovered the SF magazines. Those were the day when the pulp bloom was at its peak and distribution was still good. Our local drugstores carried Amazing Stories, Famous Fantastic Mysteries, Fantastic Novels, Planet Stories, and other odds and ends. They didn’t carry the Thrilling magazines, (Thrilling Wonder Stories and Startling Stories) but I could get these in a nearby town, along with an occasional Astounding Science Fiction. In short order I became a haunter of the newstands. Later on I became a fledgling letter hacker and tried my hand at writing. (No stories sold, but a number written.) I was just starting to get involved with fanzines when I joined the Marine Corps.

This led to a long hiatus. I lost all contact with SF reading became desultary. I never lost interest, though. I would visit the newstands to pick up the latest Ace Double and whatever magazines were available. In part this was because the other activities of my life left little time for SF and in part it was because I didn’t know anyone else who was actively interested. This hiatus came to an end in 1962 when I discovered MITSFS (the MIT Science Fiction Society.)

This happened by accident. One of my coworkers disovered that I was interested in SF and suggested that I visit the MITSFS library. It turned out that she has been an MIT coed and was secretary of MITSFS. This sounded moderately interesting so I did. It was there that I met Anthony R. Lewis for the first time. At that time the Arluis was the librarian. He built the library pretty much up from scratch to the size of a major collection. Today the MITSFS library is almost certainly the largest open library collection of SF.

I found MITSFS to be utterly fascinating and began hanging around there about every night. There were endless discussions of SF and related topics. There were all sorts of miscellaneous insanity, including a game called insanity. This was played with a coke bottle case and coke bottles. The (real) rules of the game were that each player in turn would move bottles around with great verve, making gamesmanship comments while they were doing so. The object of the game was to fool observers into thinking a real game was being played.

In those days MITSFS had little contact with SF fandom. (They still don’t.) It was their proud motto that, “We aren’t fans, we just read the stuff.” We used to go off on eating expeditions. These usually consisted of the Evil one, Bob Tove, myself, and a variety of others. Tove was and is a colorful character. He once stopped talking to Fuzzy Pink Wisowaty (now Marilyn Niven) on the ground that he had to cut his list of people that he talked to and that she was at the end of the alphabet.

A typical Tove story is of the time he and Tony Lewis (also known as the Evil one or Arluis) went to Jack and Marion’s, a local late night eating spot that we visited regularly. There was a rather inebriated lady standing in line with them. She addressed some rather drunken and slurred comments to Tony who ignored them. She then turned to Tove and said something like, “I’ll bet he thinks I’m drunk.” Tove immediately replied, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Lady. There’s no one there.”

Tove was also fond of telling someone on the phone to take a message and then telling them to wait until he got a pencil and paper so he could take it down.

These days of innocence lasted until about 1965, when Dave Vanderwerf introduced us to fandom. Dave was one of the usual crowd of undergraduates who found extracurricular activities more interesting than his collegiate career. He was also interested in activities of organized fandom such as putting out fanzines and putting on conventions. He conceived the idea of bidding Boston for the worldcon (The annual World Science Fiction Convention) in 1967. As part of this master plan he and others organized the late unlamented BOSFS (Boston Science Fiction Society) that put on the first four Boskones. Boskone = Boston SF Convention) Concurrently Irwin Strauss (a.k.a. as Filthy Pierre and also a very colorful character) decided to produce an index to the SF magazines to carry on from where the Day index left off. The latter had ended in 1950. The new index covered the period from 1951-1965. This project was to have been under the auspices of MITSFS, and MITSFS and Pierre were to have split the profits.

The MIT index and the Boskones were an illumination to the MITSFS crowd. A number of NY fans came up and we got our first look at conventions and fandom. We fell in with the CCNY crowd and quickly became jet set con goers. In 1966 Boston put in its bid for the worldcon at the Tricon bidding session and failed markedly. This actually had the effect of stirring more interest in fandom and worldcon bidding among the rest of us – the 1967 bid was only sparsely supported in Boston. This time we were going to do it right. There were two offshoots from this renewed determination. One was LOCUS, which was founded by Charlie Brown, Ed Meskys, and Dave Vanderwerf with the idea of creating a newszine that was friendly to Boston. For a short time LOCUS was co-edited by the three, but it quickly became Charlie’s zine and evolved to become the newsletter of the SF field.

The other was the formation of NESFA (The New England Science Fiction Association.) The purpose of NESFA was to create a strong local club that would put on Boskones and supply the base for a new worldcon bid for 1971. There also was the consideration that a lot of the people who formed NESFA were no longer MIT students and shouldn’t be running MITSFS, which was nominally an undergraduate activity. The NESFA of then was scarcely the NESFA of today.

It did not have any money, and it didn’t have any schedule of activities other than putting on the Boskones. In some ways it really was an attempt to formalize an existing situation. One thing it did have was a constitution that had built into it the “NESFA work ethic.” Briefly, we had observed that most SF clubs were functionally rather ineffective and that most of their activities were carried out by a handful who did things almost in spite of the club. The trouble was, as we diagnosed it, that those who did nothing for the club and didn’t understand what involved in its various activities had an equal vote with those who were doing the work. They were, so to speak, dominated by the drones. We decided to avoid this by making voting membership contingent on activity – you had to work for the club to get the right to vote on its affairs.

We very quickly acquired a big chunk of purpose with the index. It seems that Pierre was persona non grata with the Institute MIT and they did not cotton to the idea of an undergraduate making money using the Institute’s name and materials. As a result the deal and MITSFS and Pierre fell through and, after a settlement, Pierre retained the index and the printer’s bill that MITSFS had been going to pay. Pierre didn’t have the money and got drafted; the printer repossessed the remaining books. One of the first things that the newly born NESFA did was to buy up the remaining copiees of the index from the printer. This put NESFA into the book selling game. Pierre also had put out a couple of annual supplements. NESFA picked up on this also, and presto, we were in the indexing game.

The period from 1967-1971 was, to my mind, the heydey of NESFA. (A purely biased and personal opinion.) We were involved in the worldcon bid, which meant going to a lot of regional conventions and hosting parties. We were running Boskones which were muc smaller and much less formal in those days. The club was still much comprised of the original members, who had been self selected as a compatible group. Everything was new and unexciting for us in those days. And, for the most part, we all were friends – the club had not yet been racked with feuds.

In 1969 we won the worldcon bid and in 1971 we put on Noreascon, which was the largest convention ever at that time and which was distinguished by being one of the smoothest running conventions for years. I think that was the point at which things started to go wrong for the club, at first imperceptibly, and more and more rapidly. To say that things began to go wrong is, of course, a personal reaction – I am saying that I became less and less satisfied with things. But it eventually became more than any one person’s reaction.

In the years 1967-1975 NESFA pretty much was Boston fandom. In 1975, however, the club was wracked with a major feud and Boston fandom splitered, although NESFA remains a very strong club. I was caught in the middle of the furor and didn’t think much of it. Since then my interest in NESFA and in Boston fandom has been considerably less than it used ot be. Although I still have friends on all sides these really aren’t my people any more.

In general, my social fanac has declined. I make a couple of cons a year. In fact my fanac in general has been reduced – the most visible sign of life is this zine and I rather suspect I am not a very typical fanzine fan. I’ve never been an APA hacker although I did contribute to APA-L for several years and have been a steady irregular in APA:NESFA. In general the APA scene does not enthrall me.

You know what. It must be getting time to get on the FAPA waitlist….

What happened afterwards

I never did get on that FAPA (Fantasy Amateur Press Association) waitlist. That article, which appeared in Personal Notes #9, marked the end of my fanzine publishing. I had material for issue #10 and stacks of mimeoed pages waiting to be collated, but somehow actually getting it all together never quite happened.

I stayed active in NESFA, more or less, for the next few years. I even agreed to be president of NESFA in 1980. As I recall, I served ably to the extent permitted by my statement of candidacy. I take it that I must have because NESFA never revoked my NESFA fellowship. In the early 1980’s, however, NESFA went its way and I went mine.

According to Mark Olson’s entertaining account of The Rise and Fall of the Giant Boskones Jim Hudson and I convened a “Whither Boskone?” retreat to discuss how NESFA might cope with a convention which had grown beyond the club’s expectations. I did my part; every one agreed that the convention size had to be cut. NESFA, however, was addicted to running ever larger Boskones until the whole thing fell apart. In 1987 they ran “the Boskone from Hell.” In 1988 no hotel in Boston would host a Boskone.

I understand that NESFA made a lot of money from the giant Boskones; the club acquired a clubhouse in 1985. I wouldn’t know – I wasn’t there. By that time my life had moved onto entirely new tracks. In the early 80’s I started my Software Configuration Management Company. I also discovered volleyball; in 1984 I won my first athletic trophy playing tournament volleyball. A social life built around fandom became a social life built around my fellow middle aged jocks and corporate life.

Fanzines were replaced by usenet. Usenet newsgroups were (are) like an on-line APAs that are being continually updated. I participated in discussions about software management, programming, evolutionary theory, gender studies, literary theory, puzzles, bridge, philosophy, and even science fiction. Much of the material from those discussions found its way into this website.

Even though I had abandoned NESFA I was still an inactive member. What this meant was that I paid my dues and received the monthly news letter (instant message) which usually went unread. NESFA survived my absence quite handily – they acquired a club house and went into the business of publishing books, printing collections of out of print stories by SF authors of the past. Apparently this pays even better than hosting giant conventions.

In 1995 I turned the running of the company to other people and semi-retired. What that means is that I had a consulting contract and did technical work part time. I bought a computer, set up an internet account, starting writing fiction and poetry again, and took a vacation. One of the things that you do when you are semi-retired is to explore old interests and see if you can work the nostalgia out of your system.

Thus it was that I went to my first worldcon in many years, one the numerable LA cons in 1996. I did yeoman duty there. I was drafted into helping one of program items and distinguished myself by telling the convention chairman (Mike Glyer) that he couldn’t sit in the front row because it was reserved. In 1997 I attended Lone Star Con in San Antonio. Since then I went to some Boskones, a Minicon or two, and Noreascon 4 in 2004. I even visited the NESFA clubhouse and took in a business meeting, where I Hartered a motion, and voted (illegally) on both sides of another motion.

In 1999 I moved back to South Dakota, at first part time, and then in 2000 full time. South Dakota isn’t exactly a hot center of SF fanac. I’ve been to a number of high school basketball games, and quite a few rodeos instead. I still keep in touch, though, with old friends and I make it to conventions now and then.

I doubt that I will ever be very active in fandom again. My life has changed once more and I have too many other interests. There is one other factor, a sad one. So many of the people are gone; I particularly miss Bruce Pelz, who died in 2002. One of the real pleasures of going to conventions again was hanging out with Bruce. Let’s leave at that; I miss Bruce Pelz.

This page was last updated February 1, 2006.

Richard Harter’s World
Site map
February 2006
Hyde County, South Dakota is the Pin Tail Duck Capital of the world. Visit scenic Highmore, SD in 2006!