How the Geeks Won, Part 1
Over dinner with friends not too long ago, we got onto the topic of exactly how the geeks won. What were the events and who were the key players to get us to the point where being a geek had more street cred than a hip-hop star.
I’ve been toying with figuring out this very issue ever since, and have received some input from friends but as an experiment, I’m going to be publically ruminating on this topic every now ands then in the hopes of gaining additional feedback.
To me, this can be traced all the way back to the first science fiction pulps and legendary editor Hugo Gernsback. These days people outside our cozy world know the Hugo Award is named after Gernsback, whose work in the field effectively birthed science fiction as a genre. His Amazing Stories in 1926 was the first pulp magazine dedicated to the topic and his keen eye in selecting writers and stories made it a success.
One other thing Gernsback did was to include addresses with his letters to the editor. Fans began writing directly to one another which led to the formation of regional science fiction fan clubs and led to the birth of science fiction fandom.
These fans loved the field so much the monthly pulps weren’t enough so several decided to produce their own amateur magazines. The Comet, published in 1930 by Chicago’s Science Correspondence Club is currently recognized as the first such publication although the term “fanzine” didn’t arrive until Russ Chauvenet came up with the word in October 1940. Among the earliest fanzine editors were people like Jerry Siegel, Mort Weisinger, and Julius Schwartz and their love of the field was palpable with every mimeographed page.
Various New York clubs existed and many familiar names belonged, all eager young teens who found it amazing someone else liked the same thing they did. The Greater New York Science Fiction Society wound up leading to a splinter group known as the Futurians and it was they who organized a fan gathering in New York City.
While British fans tried to organize a gathering first, historians point to October 22, 1936 as a date in which the first fan gathering occurred. A group of New York fans headed south and spent a day with Philadelphia fans. Several months later, January 3, 1937, a more organized gathering of about 20 British fans met at the Theosophical Hall in Leeds. The British fans consider that the first true convention.
Nycon, in 1939, became the first recognized science fiction convention and the template for all fan cons ever since. Dubbed the World Science Fiction convention to echo that year’s NY-based World’s Fair, the show attracted dozens of fans and professionals, easily besting the British attendance. Upon hearing of the con, West Coast fan Forrest J. Ackerman took the bus east and arrived at the show, the first to attend in costume.
To show how little has changed, David A. Kyle reminisced back in 1997, “Ironically, the person who had originated the worldcon idea and who was initially its organizer and leader, Don Wollheim, was out in the cold. With his power lost by mistakes, inattention and abrasiveness, he had surrendered the struggle and had become an unofficial, non-welcomed participant. Ignored and now a mere observer, he led the dispirited Futurians.”
Not only did fans attend, but so did many of the published authors along with fans turned professionals including Weisinger and Schwartz.
These baby steps showed that there was something about science fiction, unlike any other genre published by the pulps that spoke to readers and spurred them to show their affection in innovative ways. Gernsback gave them a magazine all their own and it acted like a star, shining brightly and attracting followers to its orbit. With mass came gravity and it became a focal point.
But, how did this small number of events and the few hundred people actively participating get us from there to here?