Conventions - We Quote
This selection of materials from the earliest World Science Fiction Conventions first appeared in the April 1953 issue of Science Fiction News, the clubzine of the Australian Science Fiction Society. The zine's editor was G. B. Stone. We are not told who gathered the texts.
CHICAGO – 1940
Dr. E. E. Smith, Guest of Honour, spoke on the theme, “What does this Convention mean?” He said, in part:
“From the contemplation of any one isolated object or fact, a completely competent mind could envisage the entire Cosmos.”
That tremendous thought automatically became my opening paragraph, for it would take a mind almost that able to comprehend adequately the significance of this convention. For it, and the as yet nameless something of which it is the outgrowth and the manifestation, have a profound and baffling motivation and connotation. Do you know why we are here today? Having thought about the matter superficially, if at all, you do not. This‘is, supposedly, a convention. ‘I have attended dozens of conventions – for business, for work and for play – but this one is unique. It is entirely different, in almost its every phase, from any other.
Conventions are, it is true, of many kinds. Those of the strictly scientific societies are strictly working ones. Morning sessions, afternoon sessions, evening and night sessions. Charts, slides, pictures. Years of intense, patient work crammed, jammed into each fifteen minute paper. Acrimonious discussions, in which the position of an atom, the state of one electron, are fought over as bitterly as the prime objective of a major battle. An atmosphere of tension; the time for the annual banquet, and particularly that for the annual golf game, being given grudgingly and almost with a sneer.
I have attended Operative Millers’ Conventions and the conventions of all sorts of comparable organisations. In these the objective seems to be about 50-50 business and pleasure. The delegates do some work and hear well-worked-out papers, but they do not make a life-and-death matter of it. Then there are conventions such as those of the American Legion – primarily for fun, with the business angle supplanted by a political one. There are conventions such as those of some of the fraternal organisations – purely for fun.
But this Convention of ours does not fit into any of the above matrices.
How many of us here today are on either salary or expense, except possibly as part of a vacation? How many of our employers would consider our attendance at this meeting a sound financial investment? The editors of the professional magazines should be here on business – but I wonder if those who are here are not paying at least part of their own expenses. Allied tradesmen – firms who sell supplies to the industry or group sponsoring the convention – send representatives to it as a matter of course – these are not only on salary and expense, but spend money freely entertaining actual or prospective customers in various fashions. But how many allied traders are here?
We are here partially to renew old friendships and to form new ones, of course. We wish - we need – to have materialised in the flesh those personalities we have known only as names upon the printed page or as signatures upon letters. But these reasons alone are insufficient. No fan, however rabid or hardy, would make the sacrifice inherent in a round trip of thousands of miles merely to enlarge his circle of acquaintances; nor would he do so for two days of pleasure. What, then, is the driving force behind, the fundamental reason for being, of this convention?
Any attempt to answer this question necessitates a more than superficial study of science fiction itself. What is science fiction, basically, really? Many of my friends would phrase the question differently. They ask me, “Why is science fiction?” And it is exactly this difference in phrasing, or rather, the difference in attitude which results in this difference in phrasing, which differentiates the science fiction fan from the devotees of any other type of literature.
Other groups, great and small, read other more or less specialised fiction, but nowhere is there displayed the peculiar, close-knit binding which unites the science fiction fans of the world. Now, in 1927 I do not believe that any other magazine besides Amazing of national importance featured a readers’ department. In 1940, however, the great majority of magazines, no matter how highbrow or of whatever eminence of circulation, have followed science fiction’s lead. I am very carefully refraining from saying that they did so deliberately in order to foster an esprit de corps which was ours from the beginning. If such was the intent, it failed, and must continue to fail, for we science fictionists have been, are, and probably will remain a unique group. We have an indescribable something which no other reader group has now or ever has had.
Science Fiction has been called a literature of escape. That, it seems to me, is the result of loose, muddy thinking – the taking of the easy way, the using of a catch-phrase instead of thinking this peculiarly difficult problem through to any sort of a logical conclusion. In a narrow and very superficial sense it is escape literature, of course. So is all literature, for that matter; for any literature worthy of the name must be potent enough to take the reader away from his own everyday life into a different one. But even in the higher, more usual sense of escape – that of whiling away an otherwise tedious time – science fiction is not typical escape literature. While waiting for a train, a man may buy a copy of Four-Gun Pete’s Western Stories. He reads it partially, casually, and tosses it in the wastebasket when the train arrives. But does he buy a science fiction magazine? In 99 cases out of a hundred he does not. The casual reader does not understand science fiction, does not have sufficient imagination or depth and breadth of vision to grasp it, and hence does not like it. On the other hand, the ordinary magazine has no real following in the sense in which we understand the term – what old magazine dealers specialise in almost complete files of any of the usual types of magazines?
Nor is science fiction light literature, any more than it is escape literature. In science fiction there have been a number of stories which simply cannot be mastered in one reading. They carry a subtlety of meaning, a perfection of style and language, a depth of philosophy, a wealth of imagery – they set up thirsts which only repeated re-readings can satisfy. . . .
It seems to me that what brings us together and underlies this convention is a fundamental unity of mind. We are imaginative, with a tempered, analytical imaginativeness which fairy tales will not satisfy. We are critical – sometimes we have been called hyper-critical. We are fastidious. We have a mental grasp and scope which do not find sufficient substance in stereotypes, the cut-and-dried. We feel intensely, and we are not always either diplomatic or backward in putting our feelings into words, and sometimes into actions.
Science fiction fans form a group unparalleled in history in our close-knit although informal organisation, in our strong likes and dislikes, in our partisanships and our loyalties.
We shall continue to convene. While we will probably never become a very large group – it seems obvious that the necessity of possessing what I may call the science-fantasy mind does now and probably always will limit our number to a very small fraction of the total population – we will continue to grow as more and more of those who are already with us in spirit join us in person. We will meet somewhere every year, end every one of us who can possibly do so will attend; for in these personal meetings, in this intimate contact of minds so uniquely qualified, there is a depth of satisfaction, a height of fellowship which no one who has never experienced it can even partially understand.
DENVER – 1941
Robert A. Heinlein, Guest of Honour, said in part:
This is an opinion, but I think I know why it is that we like science fiction primarily. It is not just for the adventure of the story itself – that sort of thing, you can find that in other types of fiction. To my mind it is because science fiction has in it as its strongest factor the single thing that separates the human race from all other animals. I refer to a quality that has been termed “Time-Binding”. It is a term that say not have come to your attention, I know it has to some of you. It is a technical term invented by Alfred Korzybski, and it refers to the fact that the human animal lives not only in the present but in the past and in the future. That is the primary technique whereby we are able to make records, to gather data and to look into the future.
In taking the future into account, trying to predict what it will be, and trying to make your plans accordingly; you are time-binding. A child-like person lives from day to day. The adult tries to plan for a year or two at least. Statesmen try to plan for, oh, maybe twenty years. There are a few institutions, longer than the lives of men, as for example the Smithsonian Institution and the Catholic Church, to give a spread to the examples, who think not in terms of lifetimes, but in centuries. They make their plans that far ahead and to some extent make them work out.
Science fiction fans differ from most of the rest of the race by thinking in terms of racial magnitudes – not even centuries, but thousands of years. That is what science fiction consists of: trying to figure out from the past and from the present what the future may be. And in that we are behaving like human beings. . . .
I want to make another comment on the matter of science fiction and the fact that you and I have to put up with an awful lot of guff from people because of the orthodox point of view with which it is regarded.
I have never been able to understand why it is that the historical novel is the most approved, the most sacred form of literature. The contemporary novel is next so; but the historic al novel, if you write an historical novel that, oh, that’s literature.
I think that the corniest tripe published in a science fiction magazine (and some of it isn’t too hot, some of my stuff isn’t so hot) beats all the Anthony Adverses and Gone With the Winds that were ever published, because at least it does include in it that one distinctly human-like attempt to predict the future.
LOS ANGELES – 1942-1946
Los Angeles fan T. Bruce Yerke:
The most thrilling moment to us science fiction anarchists came after several hours of debate. First, Walt Daugherty got up and talked for a number of minutes in resounding terms, advocating that fans must unite: we must have a national organisation; we must strive for this and that. Then E. E. Evans arose and repeated Daugherty. Then Art Widner, Jr. explained the National Fantasy
Fan Federation. The anarchists were sick. The New Yorkers were sinking rapidly in their chairs. Your reporter was dying by degrees. And then - Erle Korshak mounts the platform and speaks against the whole lousy mess. An eloquent plea for anarchy. A faint cheer from the back. And Cyril Kornbluth arose and moved that the whole thing be dropped. We’ll drop it here, and suggest that you listen to the other side, which will be amply expounded in the next few months.”
A few months later Yerke wrote:
“Chums, here it is in the middle of November, and by the time you read this, probably the middle of December. And so goes the Pacificon. It’s just like Old Man River. They say that soups and drunks are better if they stew a while, but this does not apply to Conventions.
Daugherty burst in upon the first meeting of the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society after the Denvention, and within three hours the following stupendous program was outlined: (1) A bi-weekly newspaper about the thing. (Weekly, maybe.) (2) Stickers in a hurry. (3) Pacificon Society meetings every two weeks. (4) Movies, publicity, celebrities. (5) Oh my God: It’s simply colossal!
So now it is December. Christmas lights are in the air. Sweet music and angelic words float upon the night sky. And from the body of the Pacificon, dead silence. So far not a single one of the avowed objectives of the organisation has been reached.
The date of the Convention, and the place, are still as nebulous as Andromeda.
This Convention was abandoned until after the war, and was held in July 1946.
PHILADELPHIA – 1947
Lester del Rey:
I really am glad to have a chance of jotting down something for the Canadian fans. I think that sectionalism and ignorance are almost synonymous; and it would be a most unfortunate thing if we were to develop what we in the U.S. have the arrogance to call “American” (what a name for anything less than both continental) Stf and Canadian Stf and all the other local forms. So I’m glad to see our Northern fans get down here to pay a little visit to us Southern fans. And I hope we can repay the compliment.
You’ve already given us one van Vogt, to mention one thing. Now, why can’t you give us a pro magazine to hold him, and to let us overflow into – though that may be only my mercenary side coming out.
Actually, I have little right to comment – I’m not too active a fan. This is my first Convention. I’m having a good time, and I hope this is only the first of a few score. I’m getting the idea finally of why the fans will go to the trouble of coming here from a thousand to three thousand miles away.
Speakers included John W. Campbell, Jr. on atomic energy, E. E. Smith on “Whither?”, L. S. de Camp on “Adventures in the Occult”; George 0. Smith, Erle Korshak, Willy Ley, Dr. Thomas Gardner, Bob Tucker, Chan Davis.
TORONTO – 1948
I believe that the primary appeal in science fiction lies in a simple psychological fact – science fiction stories are a glorification of the individual.
Whether your protagonist in the average space-opera is a man of action or a technician, he is almost inevitably an iconoclast. Consider the typical science fiction heroes – they may be blood-and-thunder space pirates, renegades, explorers or mercenaries. On the other hand, they may be inventors, engineers, pioneers. But they have one thing in common – they are individualists. You seldom read a science fiction story in which the hero is a slave, an automaton, a meek conformist. And again, almost inevitably, they are builders, not destroyers. They are optimists, they face the future.
Of course, many times these characters are crude, even juvenile. But at least, their basic psychology and motivation are healthy.
The other side of the picture can be found in weird fiction, where a fatalistic attitude prevails – where doom and death and destruction are almost the inevitable results of challenging the Unknown.
Yet even in supernatural fantasy, the heroes usually exhibit an intellectual curiosity – a willingness to pry, to seek to defy the Fates.
Perhaps this sounds a bit pretentious to you. Even though it is merely a superficial attempt to analyse some of the concepts of fantasy, you may feel that I’m presumptuous in even bothering to deal with such a trivial aspect of writing. That attitude, if you possess it, is the result of reading too many professional critics.
Just as the juvenile fan is apt to go overboard and praise cheap pulp as being greater then Proust, so does the average professional critic lean over backwards to condemn all fantasy as trash. All current fantasy, that is.
Mark that well, for the same critic will unhesitatingly accept the Odyssey and Iliad as epics – swallow the ghosts and fairies and monsters of Shakespeare – and even grudgingly concede a bit of merit to the writings of Poe and Hawthorne.
As a matter of fact, it is interesting to observe that the great bulk, by far the greatest portion of all literature that has survived the centuries, is fantasy or contains some elements of fantasy. The “new realism” and the “naturalistic and reportorial” schools of writing are late-comers on the scene.
It is amusing to observe how the critics unanimously shunned the early writings of H. G. Wells, dismissing his efforts as fantasy and therefore hackwork – how eagerly they rushed forward to embrace him in his middle period when he turned to “novels of the current scene” – and how today, only a few years after Wells’ death, we can already see that almost the only portion of his creative work destined to survive for a time is his fantasy.
The same critics who so united in praising the early Aldous Huxley comedies of manners were much less impressed with his Brave New World – and in discussing After Many a Summer Dies the Swan they did their best to ignore the theme of prolongation of life and concentrate instead on his social theories. As for the metaphysics of Time Must Have a Stop – many of them gave up completely. And yet I submit that fifty years from now, Brave New World will be a timely book, its satire acute as ever, and its scientific perception keen – whereas even today the sophistries of Antic Hay and Point Counter Point are utterly dated.
I will not attempt to explain the basis of this critical attitude. There is no need to explain it. Time itself has a way of knocking the props from under the orthodox – and despite the pious wails of the critics, people will continue to find some sort of entertainment in Mrs. Shelley’s Frankenstein long after the titles of her other, critically-approved “serious” works are forgotten. Professor Dodgson’s mathematical theories will be dismissed as outdated and irrelevant, but Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland will still appeal.
So let the critics who, after all, are merely men who write for a living, even as the eeriest hack, continue to dismiss fantasy as not worthy of their attention – as for you and I and the guy next door, we’ll go on reading it. . . .
It goes almost without saying that I consider a gathering such as this one a manifestation of the healthiest aspect of fandom. You have come here today, for this Convention, not to save the world, or to convert unbelievers, or to grind the axe of self-aggrandisement – you have gathered here because of the pleasure you take in associating with others who share your liking for fantasy. And I take a certain pride in writing fantasy, pride in the realisation that what I write reaches an audience capable of such interest and reaction. It is not without significance that in a world so torn by discord today, such a group is still in existence – able to generate sufficient enthusiasm to make this Convention a reality.
You, all of you gathered here, are living proof of the enduring quality of fandom. You are your own justification for being. You satisfy my concept of fandom, which is simply this: friendship, based on mutual interest. No one could ask for more.
CINCINNATI – 1949
While the characters and plot may have been selected in the first place to illustrate some thematic idea, in the finished story it ought to seem the ether way round – that the story itself is the important thing, from which the theme fellows inevitably but also incidentally.
This intellectual interest in scientific possibilities, examined in the light of all their logical consequences, seems to me what makes science fiction exciting and worthwhile.
I won’t undertake to claim that it’s anything better than the more pretentious literary values offered in other types of fiction. After all, one man’s literary meat can be a pretty dull dish to another. Considering the uses to which such discoveries as the atomic chain reaction are being put, you can’t blame people who prefer to ignore such uncomfortable possibilities so long as they can.
A discussion in which David Kyle questioned a representative group, bringing out various points of general interest, was broadcast on television. Those participating were Fritz Leiber, E. E. Evans, Hannes Bok, E. E. Smith, Jack Williamson, John Grossman, Forrest J. Ackerman, Ted Carnell, Bob Tucker, Erle Korshak, Lloyd Arthur Eshbach, James A. Williams and Dr. C. L. Barrett.
Arthur J. Burks:
I realised one thing during the Convention: that to the fans science fiction was a serious business. To me, I’m ashamed to say, it has always been the means to a quick cheque. I began to realise my responsibility to the fans, to such an extent that I questioned seriously whether I had a right to continue a line that was so much a by-product to me. . . . Hereafter I’ll wait until I have a story instead of merely cooking up a yarn I feel will fetch in some bread, bacon and beans. I owe the fans much for this lesson. Hereafter, though it may be visible only to the very discerning, my science fiction yarns will have theme, meaning, purpose – and somewhat less nebulous gadgetry.
LONDON – 1951
E. J. Carnell:
Although the past eight North American Conventions have been called “World” conclaves, to Britain has gone the initial honour of holding the first truly International gathering. Geographical location made it an easier project for the London Committee responsible for the highly successful two-day meeting held in the muralled ballroom of the Royal Hotel over the weekend of May 12 - 13.
Over two hundred delegates from eight countries were able to compare notes and discuss the varying difficulties of their respective countries and make suggestions for each other’s mutual advantage.
Speakers at a special session on international fandom were Lyell Crane (Canada); Forrest J. Ackerman (U.S.A.) ; Georges Gallet (France); Ben Abas (Holland); Sigvard Östlund (Sweden); Walter A. Willis (Ireland); Ken Paynter (Australia); Mrs. Ackerman and Lee Jacobs (U.S.A.).