Back in January 2014, I wrote column number 29 for Amazing Stories® online; it was all about the first convention I had attended and the first fanzine I pubbed. Some of you who are now regular Amazing Stories® readers may not have seen that particular column, so because it’s late and I’ve got a deadline, I’m going to run it again. This column will be partially rewritten, but not completely. Those of you who remember it, please forgive me—I know Dave Barry uses 20-year-old columns instead of new ones; I don’t have anything like that. I only have some 30-year-old fanzine review columns from the old print Amazing®, but those are too old to be useful. So please bear with me, and if this all sounds familiar, then you’ve probably seen it before.
In about 1973-74, I was one of the few “dedicated” SF readers I knew of in the little college town of Pullman, Washington. I had some friends who had read some SF or fantasy, but only one friend who read it as voraciously as I—my then-wife read none at all, but she was tolerant of my reading habits—was the late Jon Gustafson*. One of the professors at Washington State University, Paul Brians of the English Department, had started what he called the “Free University”—anyone could “teach” any subject they desired, and there was no fee except for materials if it was, for example, an art class. Jon and I saw each other nearly daily, and were best friends, but we lamented the lack of other SF people. One day I got it into my head to teach a class about science fiction at the Free U. After all, I reasoned, I’d been reading it since I was about 6, beginning with the futuristic Dan Dare strip by Frank Hampton in England’s Eagle weekly for boys (Figure 1). (My father had been in the Air Force, and we’d lived in England for three and a half years.) Jon thought that was a capital idea, and that we’d pull SF people out of the woodwork, if there were any.
So my SF class was duly advertised as part of the Free U’s fall offering in 1974, I believe, and for the first couple of weeks I tried actually teaching about SF, using Brian Aldiss’s Billion-Year Spree as a kind of textbook, and bringing select items from my collection—and from Jon’s, as he was as big a collector as I—for “show and tell.” We attracted about 8 people, as I recall. After the third week I gave it up; we were all just interested in talking about SF, and it became what we eventually (although we kept it as a Free U class for a number of semesters because of free advertising) called PESFA: the Palouse Empire Science Fiction Association. (The “Palouse Empire” is what the Pullman/Moscow area likes to be called; Moscow is—or used to be—the world headquarters for the Appaloosa horse association. Hey, it’s farming country!) PESFA eventually grew to about 15 people.
The core group was still about 8 people for the first year: Jon, Mike and Beth Finkbiner, Dave Christie, Dan and Suzanne Mullins, Dan Yeomans, Bob Phillips, Mike Main, Anita Jackson; there were probably more, but my mind is drawing a blank. And George, whose last name has completely disappeared from memory—George is responsible for my getting the idea of doing a fanzine, because he brought some to one of the meetings. By 1975, the idea of putting out a zine was paramount in our minds and, since I was working for a company (Addressograph-Multigraph International, which went bankrupt in 1982 and was “eaten” by its rival, AB Dick) that made offset lithography machines, among others, we decided to skip the mimeo stage and go straight to offset. Although our college town had a couple of copiers, like Kinko’s—they seemed to flourish in those communities—we decided to buy our own, and thus New Venture was born. I was the editor, Jon was the Art Editor. We had our resident artists—Kelly Akins was part of our group, and Jon worked with an extremely talented artist named Clint Keller at WSU. Kelly did the cover of NV #1 (and 2) and we were extremely lucky that it came out well. We had decided on expensive clay-coated glossy stock, unaware that it was extremely hard to get a good print with our tiny printer, but we did succeed.
That first issue is mostly a curiosity; it includes several pretty forgettable stories by group members, as well as a reprint of a speech Harry Harrison gave at the University of Idaho (only 8 miles away from Pullman, Washington). Jon, Dan Mullens and I spent a fun evening talking to Harry over pizza and beer after his speech; aside from Frank Herbert, who I knew when I lived in Seattle, Harry was one of the first real SF authors I’d ever met. (Much later, when it was too late, I learned that David Duncan, author of Beyond Eden, and the screenplays for George Pal’s The Time Machine and Fantastic Voyage, had lived in Everett while I was there. Not the Canadian author Dave Duncan, btw. Everett, WA was between Seattle and Vancouver, BC.) NV#1 also had a film critique, a book review and an editorial by yours truly, and Jon’s “Serpent’s Tooth” SF art column, which he was writing for Richard E. Geis’s Science Fiction Review. (Side note: the same evening we were hobnobbing with Harry, Gene Roddenberry was giving a speech at WSU. A friend, who was working in A/V at WSU, made me a tape of Roddenberry’s speech, which I still have somewhere.)
But we were excited; whatever its failings, we had actually produced something. We sent off copies to various notable SF people and sat back to wait for the kudos, which were not long in coming—Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov all sent very nice letters. (Looking back over issue number one, I feel there must have been a certain amount of noblesse oblige to those letters, but it was very kind of them nonetheless.) But where to get the maximum amount of exposure for our little zine?
Wait a minute! Wasn’t there an ad or an article or something in one of the other fanzines for something called a “con” or convention, at which we might reasonably find a bunch of other SF readers, who might be persuaded to part with a buck for our little offering? Yes, there was! Something called “Westercon,” which was going to be held in July in Oakland, just across the bay from San Francisco, a city I knew well and loved! With absolutely NO idea of what we were doing, but excited to be doing it, we five (me, Jon, Dan, George and, I think Dave) piled into my Opel—with the slightly bemused blessings of my spouse—and headed for the Bay Area with a trunk full of New Ventures and luggage.
The car was not new; it was a few years old, and it had been suffering from thermostat issues for a few months. (Meaning it overheated, and often. Our local mechanic had showed me how to take out the thermostat and reset it with a screwdriver, and I’d been doing that for some months.) On the way out of Pullman, chugging up a very steep hill, it overheated again; this time I took the thermostat out of the engine and threw it, as hard as I could, away from the car. (That wasn’t the only issue… on the Bayshore Freeway the fan belt broke; fortunately, I found an old pair of L’Eggs in the trunk and used the nylons as a temporary fan belt replacement, by the side of the road.) We finally checked in to the Hotel Leamington and headed out in various directions to see what we could see. The first “famous” person I met in the lobby was, I believe, Karen Anderson, who was wearing a jacket covered with various badges. Later that day, I met Poul Anderson—one of my favourite authors by virtue of his having written Three Hearts and Three Lions, which had been published by the SF book club when we were living in Florida, in about 1961.)
Considering it was over forty years ago, I can’t remember all the people we met; I have a number of slides (I was using an old Argus C3 camera with an optical viewfinder, not an SLR, so a number of my slides and photos from that time are quite a bit offset from what I thought I was capturing!) but haven’t found and/or scanned them all. Many of the slides were unusable not only for that reason, but also because some of my film was old, and I didn’t have a very good flash. Plus, at that point I was a lousy photographer; I might as well admit it. I’ve gotten somewhat better since then.
I also met Emil Petaja, of the Bokanalia Foundation, and an author in his own right, and bought some Hannes Bok prints and a couple of hardcover books from him; I met Gordon Dickson and Michael Kurland and Philip Klass, who wrote under the name of William Tenn—if you’ve never read any William Tenn, you should go look for it; I met D.C. (Dorothy) Fontana, who wrote for a series I hadn’t really watched when it was on. (I’m referring, of course, to Star Trek. Because TV Guide had described it, before it came on, as “Wagon Train in Space” I had never watched it when it was new. Years later, at Forry Ackerman’s house, I met Ricky Schwartz, who called himself “The kid who saved Star Trek.” I thought, “That’s nice; maybe I should watch it some day.”) We met David Gerrold, who had given the keynote speech (“Stomp the Shadowman,” about the difference between the person everyone talks about and the real person). One person we (Jon and I) met, who we were both in awe of because of his writing, was Avram Davidson.
Avram had written any number of novels (The Kar-Chee Reign, The Phoenix and the Mirror, Masters of the Maze, etc.), short stories (Or All The Seas With Oysters and What Strange Stars and Skies are two of his several collections), and had edited The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, or F&SF, putting out several “Best of” anthologies for them. I was overwhelmed by his writing skill, and style. He was unique (and I still miss him) and to meet him was an honour. (I was later honoured to become friends with him.) In fact, Jon and I bought a short story from him which we later serialized (probably the first short story ever serialized) in NV; and we got his nephew, John Howarth, to illustrate it. I also got to meet Michael Whelan, William Rotsler, and a number of other artists. I bought a Whelan B/W illo from the “Dray Prescott” series of books by “Alan Burt Akers” (actually a pseudonym for Kenneth Bulmer, though I didn’t know it at the time.) I still have that, along with the EMSH (Ed Emshwiller) b/w illo from Keith Laumer’s Plague of Demons, which was published in If magazine. I still have that one, too! Jon got Avram to autograph a couple of the F&SFs he edited.
This was—except for the Harrison speech, and my meeting with Frank Herbert–one of the few times any of us had talked to real SF authors, and even though I now write the stuff myself and have met and become friends with many authors and artists, it remains a high-water mark in my memory, even though some of that memory has, as memories sometimes do, slipped away with time. Alas! Many of the people I met at the con are no longer with us–but many, happily, like David Gerrold, are still around and still friends!
With any luck, we’ll all be able to go to conventions again in the near future; I hope you will all stay safe until we’ve all been vaccinated and “herd immunity” is a real thing for humankind. (It may take a while due to variants and mutations, but I remain hopeful.) And if any of your local—or regional—conventions go virtual during this time, please do your part to support them! The last thing we need is to lose those things that allow us to meet each other in person (conventions).
Let me hear your opinions on this column; either here or on Facebook. Hey, you could even email me (stevefah at hotmail dot com is my email.) My opinion is only mine, and does not necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories®—either the owner, editor, or other columnists. Until next time!