A Brief History of Science Fiction Fandom

April 1, 2013 David Speakman

“It is a proud and lonely thing to be a fan.”

Rick Sneary, Former N3F President

The active readership/viewership of science fiction that communicates with each other on a regular basis through fanzines, conventions, clubs, etc. is what is known today as science fiction (SF) fandom. Two other genres, fantasy (F) and horror (H), are related in most people’s minds to SF fandom; the three often are referred to as a single genre, in both mainstream and fannish literature, as SF/F/H or SFFH. In most academic classifications, SF is seen as a sub-genre of fantasy literature or speculative fiction. Whatever its ultimate place in literary nomenclature, however, science fiction is the first sub-category of fiction to have a fandom created for it, meaning a body of enthusiastic fans who supported and helped shape it.

In the beginning of SF fandom in the United States, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, fans tried to keep in touch with each other via the letter columns of the professional SF magazines. This process began with the appearance of readers’ letters in the “Discussions” column of Amazing Stories in the 1920s, although some fantasy/horror fans had met and kept in touch with each other somewhat earlier via letters to Weird Tales. In these letter columns readers commented upon and compared their favorite, and not-so-favorite, stories and authors. One of the questions frequently asked was “Who really wrote that story?” SF writers, especially in the Golden Age of the genre, often wrote under pseudonyms (see SF/Fantasy Author Pseudonyms). This type of communication via letters to prozines continues in various forms to this day. Such correspondence in turn led to the formation of local clubs, the publication of amateur magazines and newsletters (fanzines), and the organization of conventions. Some of these early clubs were sponsored by professional SF magazines (prozines). Out of these clubs came new genre writers, illustrators, editors, agents, and even publishers.

One of the first clubs to be organized was in Oakland, California in 1927, only one year after the appearance of the first all-SF pulp magazine, Amazing Stories, published/edited by Hugo Gernsback. Within three years clubs had been organized in Chicago, Boston, Georgia, and New York. All of these clubs published fanzines. The first fanzine, Comet (later Cosmology), was dated May 1930 and published by the Science Correspondence Club of Chicago. It was edited by Raymond A. Palmer, who later gained fame as a prozine editor. The early clubs were interested in science, and their fanzines reflected this interest. Later clubs were more interested in science fiction per se, and their fanzines emphasized science fiction authors and the magazines in which their stories appeared instead of scientific topics.

In 1941 Damon Knight suggested that it was time for a national organization of SF and fantasy fans: “I sincerely believe that a successful national fantasy association is possible, that it could offer a needed service to every fan, and that it could be established today.” Knight was a young but respected writer at the time and later became even better known as a critic, editor, and teacher of SF/fantasy. Fans responded to his suggestion, and The National Fantasy Fan Federation (NFFF or N3F) was the result.

The Culture of Fandom

SF fandom has created its own history and culture, with famous events, conventions, awards, press associations/alliances, language, feuds, hoaxes, and activities such as collecting, writing, and publishing.

Numbered Fandoms

Early fan historian John (Jack) Speer began the numbering of the time segments of fandom beginning in 1930. Others added to his work, and today these various time periods are generally thought of as follows: First Fandom (1930-1936), Second Fandom (1937-1938), Third Fandom (1940-1944), Fourth Fandom (1945-1947), Fifth Fandom (1947-1949), and Sixth Fandom (1950-1953). In 1953 a group of young fans said Sixth Fandom was dead, and proclaimed they were the new, magnificent Seventh. Others quickly labeled their period The Phony Seventh. Since then no one has proposed a continuation of this numbering system, although the period before 1930 often is referred to as Eofandom.

Conventions (Cons)

The first science fiction convention was held in 1937 in Philadelphia. By the next year groups of New York fans were competing to hold the first world convention, and on July 2, 1939 more than 200 fans gathered in Manhattan, under the leadership of Sam Moskowitz, who would later publish one of the early fan histories, The Immortal Storm. Fans came from all over, one contingent from California that included Forrest J Ackerman and Ray Bradbury.

A world convention (Worldcon) would be held annually from 1939, with the exception of four years (1942-1945) during World War II. Worldcons were held in the United States until 1957 when the convention was held in London. Since that time Worldcons have been held in other foreign countries, including Germany, Canada, and Australia. Foreign locations now are considered traditional, although most Worldcons are held in the United States. Attendance at Woldcons has steadily climbed from only a few hundred attendees, and now each routinely has thousands of people in attendance.

Awards/Fan Funds

Contests and prizes were part of the early pulp publications, and fans started to present awards in 1941 at the 3rd Worldcon, held in Denver. The first International Fantasy Awards were given from 1951 until they were discontinued in 1957. The Science Fiction Achievement Awards, known as Hugos (after publisher/editor Hugo Gernsback) were first awarded in 1953 at the 11th Worldcon in Philadelphia, and are still given today in a variety of categories. Other awards are given in connection with the Worldcons, including the John W. Campbell Award, the Gandalf Award, and several First Fandom awards. Other American SF awards, currently being presented annually at other meetings, include the Nebulas (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America), the Philip K. Dick Award, and the Theodore Sturgeon Award. N3F also gives awards, including the Kaymar and the Franson, both named for former members of the club.

A fan fund is a sort of fellowship that helps fans attend distant conventions: The most famous is the Trans-Atlantic Fan Fund (TAFF), which began in 1952, with the first “official” trip in 1954. TAFF is a fund that helps fans in North America attend European cons, and European fans attend North American cons. Another major fan fund is DUFF (Down Under Fan Fund), established in 1972, which helps fans travel across the Pacific Ocean, either to or from Australia. Fans may be American, Australian, or from New Zealand.

APA’s

Another important development in fandom was the creation of the Amateur Press Associations or Alliances (APAs). The Fantasy Amateur Press Association (FAPA) was organized in 1937, and others soon followed. Today many exist, each organized around a special interest of the members (films, comics, pulps, etc.). N3F has its own APA, the N’APA (Neffer Amateur Press Alliance).

Fan Language

Like most sub-cultures, SF fandom developed its own special language as fans communicated with each other. Many glossaries of fannish terms exist in print and online wirh several examples of this language.

Feuds/Hoaxes

Feuds and hoaxes have existed since the beginnings of fandom, according to the SF historians who have written on these subjects. The feuds began as different individuals tried to take control of organized fandom, and ranged from the serious to the silly, depending upon the personalities of the individuals involved. Hoaxes usually were of a humorous nature, mostly involving imaginary persons, magazines, books, cons, etc., but some were more serious and were concerned with the supposed deaths of fans. Major feuds no longer exist as such, and even hoaxes are seldom perpetuated on the unsuspecting newcomer (neofan) – perhaps attesting to the fact that more mature fans dominate the field today.

Collecting/Writing/Publishing/Scholarship

Fans have contributed to the development of SF in several different ways. Many early fans were collectors, and over the years their collections contributed directly to the founding of several specialty publishers and the writing of important reference works. Many SF/fantasy books were published by these fan publishers, and this fan publishing led to commercial publishing by large book publishers such as Doubleday. At least one major publishing house, DAW, was founded by a former fan (and N3F member) Donald A. Wollheim. Fan activity also contributed significantly to scholarship, with the publications of many reference works, beginning with Everett F. Bleiler’s The Checklist of Fantastic Literature in 1948. Today there are academic journals devoted to the genre, and courses on science fiction are offered in colleges and universities.

Conclusions

Fandom today is extremely diverse, although joining clubs, reading/collecting SF/fantasy books and magazines, publishing fanzines, and attending conventions still are the main activities of fans. Club activities often involve most, if not all, of the activities that fans have enjoyed since the beginnings of fandom: collecting, writing, composing/performing fan music, doing artwork, participating in APAs, playing computer games, sponsoring and attending cons (and participating in filksinging and masquerades at these cons), discussing authors and artists and their work, and criticizing genre movies/TV programs/magazines/books, etc. The world of SF fandom has shaped, and continues to shape, the literature it studies.

Early on there were few women in fandom, mostly the sisters, girlfriends, and/or wives of male fans. It was a newsworthy event when it was discovered that an assumed male fan was instead a female. Many more women entered fandom in the 1970s and 1980s, however, and now play prominent roles in all aspects of fandom. Today science fiction fandom is bigger and better than ever before. Those readers who want a more detailed history of this remarkable phenomenon are directed to the books listed in the following bibliography. ✵

Selected Bibliography

—Gunn, James (ed.). The New Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. New York: Viking, 1988.

—Moskowitz, Sam. The Immortal Storm. Atlanta, GA: ASFO Press, 1955.

—Speer, Jack. Up to Now. Brooklyn, NY: Arcturus Press, 1994.

—Sanders, Joe (ed.). Science Fiction Fandom. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994.

—Warner, Harry. All Our Yesterdays. Chicago, IL: Advent, 1969.

—Warner, Harry. A Wealth of Fable. Van Nuys, CA: SCIFI Press, 1992.

NOTE: This brief historical account of SF fandom is based largely on the fan writings of Forrest J Ackerman, Don Franson, Sam Moskowitz, Rick Sneary, Jack Speer, Jon D. Swartz, Bob Tucker, Harry Warner r., and Donald A. Wollheim, all past or present members of N3F.