Fanzine reviewed: SCIENCE FICTION REVIEW #21
Science Fiction Review (#21) August 1955
Faned: Richard E. Geis
The BCSFA archive contains 18 issues of Richard E. Geis’ SCIENCE FICTION REVIEW (sometimes aka THE ALIEN CRITIC). The oldest is issue #6 dated August 1973. Issue # 21 is dated May of 1977.
Yet included in the recent Metzger donation is a different issue #21 dated August 1955!
Apparently there were two incarnations of his SCIENCE FICTION REVIEW. I was not previously aware of this. Reaching for my copy of A WEALTH OF FABLE (a history of 1950s fandom) by Harry Warner Jr., I find out the real story is much more complicated.
Turns out Geis, a Portland, Oregon resident who seldom felt the need to meet his fellow fans, much preferring contact through correspondence (much like Warner himself), published the first issue of this zine under the title PSYCHOTIC in July 1953. Bit of an ongoing theme, actually. Editorials were called “The Leather Couch,” fanzine reviews were “The Observation Ward,” the letter column “Section Eight,” and so on. He avidly sought controversial material, and was so successful at ripping away fannish apathy some fans (according to Warner) were of the opinion PSYCHOTIC was the top ranking fanzine of 1954.
However an incident where the John W. Swift Company, a printer specializing in lithography, refused to print his 18th issue “due to the nature of some of the content of your latest creation,” i.e. editorial comments on contemporary sexuality, may have taken some of the momentum out of the zine, at least as far as Geis was concerned.
He switched the title for the 21st issue from PSYCHOTIC to THE SCIENCE FICTION REVIEW, and toned down the policy, placing much more emphasis on science fiction as such. By the 25th issue the magazine had died.
Warner stated “PSYCHOTIC, GEIS said, had been murdered when he had a moment of weakness and SCIENCE FICTION REVIEW died in a moment of disgust. He announced its death with the explanation ‘I folded it because it had become more work than fun.’”
In the seventies Richard E. Geis revived the title and led the way toward a new trend of large sercon fanzines devoted to the professional side of Science Fiction. This is widely considered the solid foundation of his fannish legacy.
But let’s turn the clock back and examine the tail end of his wilder introduction to extensive fanac: THE SCIENCE FICTION REVIEW #21 of 1955.
The editorial consists of a few sparse notes. Being the editor, he obsesses over the fact that grey paper (with logo) does not merge with grey paper underneath when utilizing a half-tone photo-offset method of reproduction. “Clearly I should have setup the logo on a large piece of grey and not on a strip of grey and then pasted them on another piece of the same material.”
I didn’t even notice what he was talking about till I read his complaint and looked again at the cover. I had thought the black lines around each word were deliberate. Some Faneds are just too damn perfectionist for their own good. As you may have noticed, with my zines (for them as has read them), or even in my clubhouse columns, I don’t care if typos or other sorts of errors escape vetting. Most readers are too busy skimming along the words for meaning to even notice misspellings. That be my theory. Saves a lot of fuss and stress.
Geis mentions the first article, THE DOLLAR AND THE DREAM, A DISCOURSE ON COMPETENCE, is the text of a speech Damon Knight gave at FanVetCon in April of 1955. Damon was a reasonably good writer, fairly popular, but an even better critic of Science Fiction literature. I highly recommend his IN SEARCH OF WONDER, an anthology of columns with titles like “Half-Bad Writers” and “More Chuckleheads.”
In his introduction to the first edition of 1956, Damon wrote “These short essays (originally written for F&SF) make up an informal record of the period that will be known to science fiction historians as the Boom of 1950-1955. It was a period that produced some of the best of science fiction ever to appear in hard covers, along with a fascinating flood of the worst science fiction ever conceived by the mind of man.”
In his article Damon elaborates on this. “Every now and then, in our field, demand suddenly increases. This seems to happen about every ten years. And when it happens, there aren’t enough competent writers, editors, illustrators—anybody connected with science fiction—to go around. Somebody has to fill in, and inevitably, somebody does. The result is large quantities of bad science fiction.”
“Then the thousands or hundreds of thousands of new people who have been attracted to science fiction, after weeks or months, turn away from it in disgust—literally in disgust—and go back to comic books or cross-word puzzles.”
Part of the solution, according to Damon, is “whenever the occasion offers, stand up and holler, ‘It stinks!’” Another is for genuine SF fans to somehow take over as editors of SF magazines to the point where it becomes accepted practice “in the industry that science fiction magazines should be edited by people who like the stuff and know something about it.”
Doesn’t always work though. “The results were not uniformly good. I can think of at least one fan turned pro who I think has set this field back ten years …” I wonder who he had in mind?
Noah W. McLeod contributes a review of EARTHLIGHT by Arthur C. Clarke. Seems Noah had Damon’s advice on his brain. “The gadget extrapolations and the descriptions of life as lived on the Moon are really superb and show Clarke at his best. His word pictures of Lunar scenery are prose poetry. I wish I could say the same about the political and social extrapolation.”
“The plot is slight and simple; one feels that Clarke is not much interested in the fate of his characters. He eliminates all sex angles by the simple expedient of making Sadler a married man separated from but very much in love with his wife.”
“The characters are shadowy. Sandler is no hero, neither is Molton a villain … This is one of those stories whose principal interest is the setting, not the action or the people … Clarke fell flat on his face in social extrapolation, plotting, and characterization.”
Arthur C. Clarke remains one of my favourite SF writers, but I must admit that when I first “discovered” his writings in the 1960s it was obvious to me he was primarily an “idea” man and that characterization interested him not at all. At the time I thought this was one of his great strengths. Isaac Asimov rather similar I think. Heinlein was much better at characterization (in what I refer to as “those boring bits”), but it was Philip K. Dick who succeeded in writing entertaining characters, at least to my mind. So much for my critical acumen.
Next comes a seven page article DIALOGUE BY THE EDITOR in which Geis argues with himself over just how bad the contents of the summer 1955 issue of STARTLING STORIES Magazine truly were. According to Warner, Geis was famous for tickling “the fannish fancy” with arguments between himself and “Alter Ego, whom he alleged to be an uncontrollable eruption of his subconscious.”
An eruption of something. Geis holds nothing back. One can tell he enjoys sinking his teeth into poor writing, no matter the author.
Take, for instance, MOON, JUNE, SPOON, CROON by Gordon R. Dickson, “a story that describes the love affair between a computer and an experimental rocket and their resolve to die together rather than be parted …”
“I think it was rather good.”
“GOOD? Are you batty? It was the most cruddy, horrible, lousy—”
“Lemme finnish! I was gonna say I thought it was good satire.”
“You took it too seriously. Right from the start it was too bad even for STARTLING. Even for PLANET …”
Then there’s Geis’ comments on THE WHITE SPOT by Murray Leinster. “There is one glaring plot-cliché in it which shouts to be examined … Leinster has this bad man poised as a threat over the needs of our hero and wife and friend for the entire story, then when the Thing is disposed of and the showdown comes between the villain and the good people, the poor slob trips and shoots himself.”
“I guess Leinster got tired of typing about then, huh? Maybe wanted to go fishing and—”
“This killing-off-the-villain-by-his-own-hand, poetic-justice-style, is dishonest writing … It is the lazy way …”
In reference to the main character in TIME OUT FOR REDHEADS by Miriam Allen deFord, Geis writes “You should know that the inexorable requirements of plot and bad writing demand that either a character have no personality at all, or act completely at variance with whatever has been given him. Weak characters ALWAYS burst out with hero-type actions when the plot demands it. This … mouse of a man … character is no exception.”
Reading the above, it makes perfect sense that Geis would eventually devote the bulk of his fanac to critiques of professional writings. He obviously got quite a kick out of doing that. Not sure how the authors under his microscope felt about it.
Harlan Ellison contributes a LETTER FROM NEW YORK describing a variety of interesting newsworthy items.
“The science fiction scene is in a peculiar state: dormant, but rumbling as though about to awaken with a burst of flame and smoke. Rumors—some substantiated, some mere supposition—have it that before September and the Convention, there will be 12 new magazines on the stands.”
Great galloping Ghu! Twelve NEW SF zines? Competing with how many existing zines? Probably fair to say that around this time the “unity” of SF fandom, in terms of shared reading experience, was long gone. Now fans were prone to meet other fans and have nothing in common with them, at least as far as favourite authors went. Perhaps the blame for the “break-up” of “true fandom” should be placed here, rather than on the shoulders of Trek fandom a decade later.
According to Lester Del Rey there were 25 different SF magazines in 1950, rising to 36 in 1953 (offering a total of 174 separate issues to purchase! What kid’s allowance was big enough to afford that many?), but beginning to taper off in 1955. For example, the two Magazines Geis mentions in his article, STARTLING STORIES and PLANET STORIES, were defunct by the end of the year. Geis’ critical comments on their contents may offer a clue why.
Getting back to Harlan’s letter, he offers the following delightful tidbit:
“Bob Silverberg’s first novel, REVOLT ON ALPHA C—with the suspiciously named characters Larry Stark and Harl Ellison—is out, and Bob has sent the prospectus for his second one off to Crowell for approval. In a search to discover just how much sex he can allow in the plot, with hopes for a pocket reprint, Silverbob spent some time pouring over a copy of your correspondent’s ROLLING STONES by Heinlein and several other stf juveniles.”
Heinlein’s juveniles weren’t exactly noted for their sexual content, but I believe they did contain some hints that boys and girls did not belong to the same sex, a revelation which was pretty risqué by 1950s standards. Given that it was an era when many now highly-acclaimed literary works were outright banned, and even fanzines were checked for “smut” by the post office, Silverberg was wise to take precautions.
A letter of comment from British fan Fred L. Smith seems to agree with Geis’ belief that most SF is crud when commenting on the state of British magazines.
“Carnell has introduced a number of interesting new writers in his mags, notably ex-fan James White and unknown Brian W. Aldiss, but has been having trouble with SCIENCE FANTASY ‘owing to the dearth of good material submitted’ and states that he may even reach the stage where he ‘can’t publish on time because of the lack of material.’”
And Julian Parr (a British fan working for Britain’s consulate general in Dusseldorf) writes “You will probably have heard that the action against the German promag UTOPIA for publishing stories which “glorified war, death and destruction” has been rejected by the [German] Federal Board of Examiners … The latest issue of UTOPIA, #22, contains an announcement on the foundation of the Science Fiction Club Deutchland (SFCD): Germany’s first SF club—though I myself am rather sceptical of a club run under the auspices of a promag.”
Well, Hugo Gernsback got away with it, starting up the SCIENCE FICTION LEAGUE in 1934 on behalf of WONDER STORIES. Many of the clubs founded for the league carried on after the parent organization itself faded away. The SFL put organized fandom on its feet, as it were. The SFCD accomplished the same for German fandom, evolving and splintering by the end of the decade into multiple groups with names like SCIENCE FICTION UNION EUROPA, and the rather formidable sounding INTERESSENGEMEINSCHAFT FUR WISSENSCHAFTLICHE UTOPIE; groups with a collective membership of about 1,500 more-or-less active fans, some of whom contributed to the twenty or so German fanzines which sprang into existence. A good start I’d say.
To sum up I found this issue of SCIENCE FICTION REVIEW well worth reading and a good harbinger of what was to come in its later incarnation.
#1 (Cover) – Bob Kelling
#2 – Dave Hammond
#3 – Jack Harness
#4 –Bob Stewart
#5 – Bob Kellog
#6 – Ralph Rayburn Phillips
#7 – Robert Burleson
#8 – Dan Adkins
BY THE WAY:
You can find a fantastic collection of zines at: Efanzines
You can find yet more zines at: Fanac Fan History Project
You can find a quite good selection of Canadian zines at: Canadian SF Fanzine Archive
And check out my brand new website devoted to my OBIR Magazine, which is entirely devoted to reviews of Canadian Speculative Fiction. Found at OBIR Magazine
And while checking out OBIR, click on the sub-heading “Polar Borealis Magazine” to see the first issue of my semi-pro SF&F fiction zine.