Sci-Fi Fanzines

You are Scum! Welcome to this first issue of my very own periodical, dedicated to you – the target demographic of mainstream media (that’s everyone not employed by mainstream media). You are on the receiving end of the utter contempt with which broadcast, print and corporate internet publishers treat their audience. To the powers that be in the world of entertainment and news, you are the unsophisticated masses to be numbed and distracted by the vile (glorious, excellent) bile they spew. This periodical will explore media made for Scum like you, media made by Scum like you and the ways in which Scum-Media defines our culture – both the prevailing culture, which belongs to everyone, and the fan cultures, which are more self-selected, narrowly defined and generally less accessible to the uninitiated.

Peon, a sci-fi fanzine

So I’m starting ATTENTION SCUM on safe ground (for me at least), which I hope will also appeal to the kind of Scum I hope to reach. I’m dedicating this month to Science Fiction, its role in the early history of self-publishing, especially in the 50’s, and how the democracy – even populism – inherent in that history impacts modern science fiction.

Roots of the genre go as far back as the 18th century and its age of enlightenment in Europe (or even further if you’re some kind of stickler Scum), but the real flowering of Sci-Fi came in the 19th century with the development of the novel. Some commentators more educated and qualified than I consider the first real science fiction novel to be the 1818 novel Frankenstein, by Mary Shelly. It’s a story of the consequences of a science experiment gone horribly right/wrong that forces humans to confront themselves in a kind of mental terra incognita. It explored the exhilaration and fear inherent in probing the unknown and the inhumanity those feelings can expose in scientists and average people. Themes explored by Frankenstein and its contemporaries combined with the proliferation of industrial knowledge and innovations like the harnessing of electricity, the discovery of radiation and the development of mass production captured the public’s interest. That popular interest lead to the rise in the late 19th and early 20th century of pulp publishing houses which pushed out cheap magazines filled with short stories and serial comic strips. These pulp magazines came in huge numbers to capitalize on the nascent flame of popular interest in science and speculative fiction.

Technology, which made it possible for these businesses to cheaply and quickly bring these stories to market, soon fell into the hands of their audience as those technologies became cheaper and more accessible. Newly invented synthetic dye and caustic ink were used to make high quality, detailed stencils. This lead to the development of the mimeograph, which was affordable and could rapidly create many copies of print material.

Fan clubs of the day, especially those dedicated to science fiction, were primed to take advantage of the developments of the industrial revolution. No doubt the combination of a keen interest in the impact of technology on human life and a natural desire to share that interest made the power of self-publishing obvious to sci-fi clubs and societies of the day. They took up the task of creating their own newsletters and independent publications with aplomb – and a whole new publishing community came into existence within only a decade or two.

Early zines were basically newsletters circulated in small communities of enthusiastic fans who needed to coordinate conventions and wanted to detail their ideas about where the world was going through art, fiction and editorials. They took the pulp business model and substituted personal satisfaction and a sense of togetherness/sodality for profit.

Galaxy Magazine, a mainstream sci-fi pub
Galaxy Magazine, a mainstream sci-fi pub

Sci-fi communities developed a modern mythology through which they could try to make the future seem more predictable and comprehensible. They created a language for discussing the changes their world was undergoing and was still to undergo and created a way to talk about fandom without resorting to criticism or authority. Not that those things were tossed out entirely – but early zines were unwitting architects of a world in which criticism and authority were not preconditions to having an opinion about literature.

This explosion of mainstream and independent interest lead to the golden age of science fiction in the early half of the 20th century and the new-wave which followed in the latter half. Some mark the golden age as lasting from about ‘39 to the late 40s and consider the 50s a transitional period, but this author rather thinks the 50’s represent the height of golden age sci-fi; I think the insight of the authors still ative had matured over the preceding decades and the audience had also shrunk – cheap pandering and the style-over-content mode of writing was a less effective device at this point. The shrinking audiences also meant pulp magazines began to collapse. This thinning of the herd forced publishers into raising the quality of what remained while it also gave them the pick of the litter when choosing what to print – making their task much easier.

Meanwhile, fanzines continued to circulate in this era having never depended on broad market appeal in the first place. They had also matured and grown into a network of indie publications related through shared readership and sometimes direct reference. References or criticism weren’t necessary for zines to exist or forge connections but they those tools to build and maintain relationships. Reviews of fanzines by other zines have a precedent reaching all the way back to the mimeograph jobs produced by science fiction aficionados in the early 20th century. Later examples of fanzines contain more substantial reviews of publications the editors felt had promise – Peon from the 50’s (issue #27 to be detailed in its entirety later on) is one example. In issue #26 in a section titled “The Fan Press,” contributor John Ledyard points the readers of Peon to a raft of other fanzines.

In the 50’s the in-group knowledge was still left to close-knit knots of people circulating ideas to one another on paper. In a kind of weird contrast though, self-publishing is a world where divisions are rarely drawn in bold and the focus is primarily on what people want to share, not what people think their readers want or expect to read. John Ledyard keeps his opinions short and to the point while detailing the quality of the artwork and the type of content readers can expect much more richly – he also tends toward critical appraisal in favor of personal reactions to material. In 11 reviews he gives a personal account of his reaction only once and confines himself otherwise to general impressions of the art and quality of reproduction. I like that attitude.

Some of the things I admire about early reviewers are as much the product of doing work quickly, in their off-hours as intentional devotion to camaraderie or fairness. I know that but I don’t think it makes those reviews less valuable or interesting. At least a few specific areas of focus would have little place in reviews of contemporary work. For instance high quality print reproduction is not only available, the internet has made it almost irrelevant. Likewise, the task of setting type around art by hand and carefully determining page breaks, while not entirely irrelevant yet, is quickly being made pointless by the freeform nature of web publishing.

Still though, I don’t think I need to abandon that generous but also critical spirit here. It’s probably not a big deal for me to judge the print quality I see in scans of 30 or 40 year old zines compressed for internet distribution and I doubt you would care anyways. The art and the ideas are still there and I can still tell you what I think about them and which ones I think are worth taking time to go look at. I can also tell you how I think they matter to the history of the smoggy Scummy underworld of publishing and the chromium towers of mainstream media. All this is to say that I hope I will live up to the emergent traditions that have boiled to the surface of the world of Scum in the coming weeks. I intend to talk about things for their merit and importance. I love the things I’m going to be talking about and if you don’t yet I’ll do everything I can to make converts of you Scum who are reading my writing. Failing that I hope to at least convince you that this stuff is important, but if I don’t that’s ok; you’re all Scum anyways.