Friday, April 25, 2014

Fanzine flashback #1: 1964's "Con" by Christopher Priest


Preface

Blogs are nothing new. I mean, they're really nothing new.

Blogs are amateur-driven exchanges of information, ideas and comments (and often a lot of silliness) and, as such, are descendants of the amateur press associations of the late 19th century and, even more directly, the science-fiction fanzines that sprang up starting around 1930 and had their print heyday from the 1950s through 1970s.

In an article for Asimov's Science Fiction fabulously titled "Thought Experiments: How Propeller-Heads, BNFs, Sercon Geeks, Newbies, Recovering GAFIAtors, and Kids in the Basements Invented the World Wide Web, All Except for the Delivery System," the late Roger Ebert once wrote:
"[W]e were online before there was online. It is perfectly obvious to me that fanzines were web pages before there was a web, and locs were message threads and bulletin boards before there was cyberspace. Someday an academic will write a study proving that the style, tone, and much of the language of the online world developed in a direct linear fashion from science fiction fandom–not to mention the unorthodox incorporation of ersatz letters and numbers in spelling, later to influence the naming of computer companies and programs. Fanzines acted uncannily like mimeographed versions of Usenet groups, forums, message boards, and web pages — even to such universal design strategies as IYGTFUI (If You’ve Got the Font, Use It)."1
Indeed, 21st century bloggers aren't doing anything new. We're just continuing a decades-old form of idea-sharing and interaction on a digital platform.

As an ephemera collector, historian of the obscure and fan of science fiction and fantasy, I have gathered a modest collection of 20th century fanzines over the past few years. But it's no fun keeping them under plastic and stuffed in a drawer. I am launching this occasional series to share and celebrate the work of these amateur fanzine editors and publishers whose passion and creativity blazed the path for the zebibytes of geek culture and conversation that now reside in cyberspace.2 (For a list of other fanzines that I plan to write about, see the bottom of this post.)

Fanzine flashback #1: At a glance

Title: Con
Issue: Volume 1, No. 1
Date: August 1964
Primary theme: Science fiction
Pages: 20
Size: 8 inches by 10 inches
Binding: Three staples
Publisher/editor: Christopher M. Priest
Publisher's location: "Cornerways," Willow Close, Doddinghurst, Brentwood, Essex, United Kingdom
Artwork: Dick Howett
Duplicating services: Charles Platt

List of contents3
  • Introduction
  • "A Star is Calling Earth"
  • CONsum-er
  • Extrapolation in SF
  • D.o.U.I.
  • Purge — a short story by Philip Harbottle
  • The Lights in the Sky
  • CONscience
  • CONnotations

Background: About Priest and "sercon"

This isn't going to happen with every fanzine that I review, but it turns out that Christopher McKenzie Priest, who was born in 1943, went on to become a very successful author in the years after he published Con.

You might know him best as the author of the award-winning 1995 novel The Prestige, which was adapted into an excellent movie starring Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman. But that was hardly the British author's only notable work. He has won the British Science Fiction Association (BSFA) award for best novel four times — in 1974 for Inverted World, in 1998 for The Extremes, in 2002 for The Separation, and in 2011 for The Islanders.

He has his own website and, ironically, blog. And his Wikipedia page is here.

And so it will be partially within the context of knowing that Priest went onto a successful career that we examine this issue of Con.

We also know, thanks to an article in THEN, Rob Hansen's history-in-progress of British science fiction fandom, that Con came along at a time in fanzine history when a wave of sercon — "serious and constructive" — publications were beginning to emerge. Hansen writes of "the new wave" in the mid 1960s:

"Chris Priest published his first fanzine, CON, in August 1964. The second, and final, issue appeared the following February. CON carried amateur fiction by such as Charles Platt, fannish anecdotes by Priest, and the like. Overall, it was considerably more accomplished than some of its contemporaries and when reviewing the first issue in LES SPINGE 14, Jim Linwood called it: 'one of the best first ishs for many years, displaying a maturity that is usually reached only by the fourth or fifth ish'."

Looking inside Con

The 50-year anniversary of this fanzine's publication is quickly approaching. In the introduction, which also features artist Dick Howett's sketches of both himself and Priest (shown at right), Priest lays out his vision:
"This is the first edition of CON, and this is the fourth introduction written for it. The previous three have been left at the wayside, scrapped as new thoughts have taken shape on editorial policy. With the first issue of a magazine, particularly an amateur one, it is to tread a perilous path to be dogmatic about editorial aspirations; and yet every magazine must have a definite plan of some kind to follow.

"CON's policy is rather difficult to describe, yet somewhat simpler in execution. ... Occasionally it will discuss sf in serious tones, at times it may be fannish -- but most of the time it will attempt to print articles which although not directly connected to sf, will be written in a manner that should interest the science fiction reader, fan or otherwise."

Unfortunately — and as we will see with numerous vintage fanzines that are discussed in the coming months — there were many obstacles to successfully publishing on a regular basis. Priest had a vision for his magazine, but, according to this British fanzine bibliography (and confirmed by Hansen), only two issues of Con were ever published: this one and a second one in February 1965.

This first issue has an interesting mix of content, and I believe Priest succeeded in his goal of making it compelling for readers with a general interest in both science and science fiction.

"A Star is Calling Earth," a two-page article written by Priest, discusses 61 Cygni and the (somewhat daft) belief of two Russian scientists at the time that one of its stars was "attempting to contact Earth by transmitting powerful radio or light beams in its direction." The scientists tried to weave the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa and the 1908 Tunguska event into their convoluted theory of attempted contact by alien races.

Priest has a healthy dose of skepticism for the theory: "There a number of holes in the story that underline the needlessness of immediate action." And yet he also leaves the door open for further investigation: "Perhaps the Russians are correct then. Perhaps there is a race of extra-terrestials trying to contact us. But does it not occur to you that they are going about it in a heavy-handed way? What can the mentality of a race be, that they use a weapon of inconceivable power to call us. One is reminded of a man who, on getting no replay to his front-door knock, kicks down the door to ensure he is heard!"

Moving along, in the "CONsum-er" essay, Priest presents the 1=2 algebraic paradox (which is discussed here, if you're interested) and offers "any currently-published science fiction paperback ... to the first person to pinpoint the fallacy." It's a neat little change of pace.

Moving along... "Extrapolation in SF" is a critical essay by Priest that mentions works by Frederik Pohl, Robert Sheckley, Arthur C. Clarke, Fritz Leiber and others. ... D.o.U.I. stands for "Department of Useless Information" and includes trivial tidbits such as "The moon's distance from the earth increases by five inches every sidereal year." ... And "Purge," the short story, takes up five pages and has some minor parallels to the tale of the X-Men, which first began appearing in the comics in September 1963, about a year before this fanzine was published. The story's author, Philip Harbottle, has also gone on to have a successful and interesting career in science fiction. (See his biographical entries on DarkFantasy.org and The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.)

There are more essays by Priest in the fanzine's final pages. "CONscience" considers the mysteries of our solar system, including the rings of Saturn, the axial tilt of Uranus and the contradictions of Pluto. And "The Lights in the Sky" is part-speculative and part-philosophical in nature, focusing on star-gazing and space travel. Priest writes:
"Today, as interplanetary flight is being planned and man will leave the atmosphere at last, navigation will come to depend more and more on the art of celestial course-plotting. ... But were were to go out in space, what would we see? Out in space there is no atmosphere to distort our view of the stars. To date, no man has really been outside the Earth's atmosphere; including those men who achieve orbital flight. What will be seen, once we're well away from our plant? Will the stars, as forecast by prominent astronomers and scientists, shine forth in a new blaze of unprecedented glory? Or will they fade to apparent invisibility, lost in the reaches of airless space — their rays of light dissipated by the incredible distances travelled?"
I bet Priest has loved living through everything from Voyager to Cosmos to the Hubble telescope to Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Finally, "CONnotations" is a long closing statement from Priest. A few excerpts:
  • "It will be obvious by now that CON is not a frivolous magazine, and perhaps this is a major fault. The overall effect seems to be, on a quick re-appraisal, one of overwhelming seriousness. Let me say at this point that this was not the intention, and it is a genuine hope that subsequent issues will change this."
  • "With with exception of the short story, the entire contents of this first issue have been written by me. Although this is fairly usual state of affairs with new fanzines, it cannot go on. Only so much can be written by one person, because after a while the standard of work goes down and lapses into hack-work. Outside CONtributions, therefore, are requested."
  • "On the subject of fiction, by the way, CON will publish one short story each issue, for which the contributing author will be paid in cash. I am, evidently, one of those rare people who think that amateur fiction-writers should be encouraged."
  • "CON, like many other fanzines, is only produced on an irregular basis. ... To earn a copy, write a letter of comment, send me a shilling for each copy you want, send me your fanzine, or else make friends with me."

Finally, I should also note that Con contains at least a dozen illustrations by Howett. This is the one that appears on the back cover...


* * *

Other fanzine issues to be featured
Each of these will have its own future installment. If you know anything about one of these fanzines or editors, contact me at chrisottopa@gmail.com.
  • Karma, No. 2 (August 1961); publisher Earl Noē, associate editor Timothy J. Dumont; Fort Worth, Texas
  • Wizard, No. 1 (May 1966); coordinator Alma Hill; Boston, Massachusetts
  • Loki, No. 7 (no date); publisher and editor Dave Hulan, art editor Katya Hulan; Van Nuys, California
  • The Odd One, first annish (anniversary) issue (late 1950s); publisher Clayton Hamlin, art editor Tim Dumont; Bangor, Maine
  • Fafhrd, Vol. 1, No. 1 (May 1955); published and edited by Ed Cox (Hermosa Beach, Calif.) and Ron Ellik (Long Beach, Calif.); art editor Howard Miller
  • Umbra, No. 13 (April 1956); published and edited by John Hitchcock; Baltimore, Maryland
  • Hobgoblin, No. 12 (January 1964); "published for SAPS and Redd Boggs by Terry Carr"; Brooklyn, New York
  • Troll Chowder, No. 1 (September 1962); written and published by Terry Carr; New York, New York
  • The National Fantasy Fan, Vol. 21, No. 3 (June 1962); edited by Albert J. Lewis; Los Angeles, California
  • The Twilight Zine, No. 19 (August 1966); edited by Cory Seidman and Leslie Turek; Cambridge, Massachusetts
  • Omnifan, Vol. 2, No. 4 (Spring 1974); published and edited by David Anthony Kraft; Saint Michael, North Dakota
  • Pot Pourri, No. 30 (July 1963); printed and published by John Berry; Belfast, Northern Ireland
  • Warlock, Vol. 1, No. 3 (March 1964); published by Larry Montgomery; Anniston, Alabama
  • Amra, Vol. 2, No. 44 (October 1967); published by "the Terminus, Owlswick, & Ft Mudge Electrick Street Railway Gazette" and serving as "the official organ of the Hyborean Legion"; Eatontown, New Jersey
  • Amazing, Thrilling, Sexy, Astounding, Analog, and Dry Dull Boring Scientific Fact Neffer Stories, Vol. 1, No. 1 (June 1961); published by "the Fan Hillton"; Los Angeles, California
  • Salamander, No. 3 (July/August 1962); published by Fred Patten; Los Angeles, California
  • Fadaway (formerly The Monday Evening Ghost), Vol. 3, No. 3 (early 1960s); published by Bob Jennings; Nashville, Tennessee

Footnotes
1. I highly recommend that you read the rest of that article by Ebert. It's filled with anecdotes about how fanzines influenced him and his experiences publishing his own fanzine, Stymie. You might also enjoy a shorter, related piece that Ebert wrote in 2008, titled "Fanzines Beget Blogs." Finally, I love that young Ebert labeled his own fanzines (see a picture here). You can read more about that in this 2013 remembrance written by "The Editors" of RogerEbert.com.
2. I don't know if it's actually true that there are zebibytes of geek culture on the internet. My wife might. But it just seemed like an equally impressive and humorous word to use there. So I did.
3. Given the fanzine's title, it's labeled as the "CONtents."

2 comments:

  1. Just a small point: contrary to "At a glance", Dick Howett did the artwork, not Dick Howlett.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you! And that's not a small point. That's a big error on my part, and there's no excuse because the printed name Howett was staring me in the face the entire time I wrote this post. I have gone back and fixed the name throughout. And I see, now that I'm searching under the correct name, that he was a published artist -- http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/ch.cgi?93845 ... I will make sure to go back and write more about him in a future post and remedy my error and oversight. Thanks for your attentiveness and for pointing this out.

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