Friday, November 14, 2008

Sam Moskowitz Wants You to Know It's All Don Wollheim's Fault

As far as I can tell, The Immortal Storm is Sam Moskowitz’s book-length justification for what happened at the first World Science Fiction Convention, held in 1939 in New York. Along the way he goes back to the earliest days of fandom and takes his story right up to the beginning of WWII, but in the end this is all about him telling his side of a fan feud. The material that makes up the book was originally serialized between 1945 and 1952 in the fanzine Fantasy Commentator. That in and of itself is a tremendous feat; not many have the energy and/or obsession needed to keep a fan history project going for seven years. However, it is exactly in the matter of energy and obsession that Moskowitz distinguishes himself in this book.

Moskowitz briefly takes us back to the earliest days of science fiction, the fantastic, and fandom. He traces a line to modern sf from the great classics of the world such as the Odyssey and Beowulf. Along the way he is not afraid to use hyperbolic flattery:
The only difference between the science fiction fan of today and the Homer of yesteryear is that the fan of today knows there is a sufficiently large kernel of truth in his dreams to make them possible of realization—that the fantastic fiction of today may well become the fact of tomorrow.
Really? The only difference? Kewl.

However he quickly gets back to more recent history, particularly the magazines. I found it interesting to see how fantastic content preceded Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories—for instance Weird Tales had been around for almost a decade at that point. Back then “fantasy” generally meant supernatural horror of the Lovecraft variety, another point I hadn’t realized before.

Next comes the important point: Amazing Tales has a letter column, and fandom is born. Fans write letters, argue with each other, and start forming clubs and publishing fanzines. A few years after that, they start gathering at conventions small and large. This remarkable pattern of activity, which has now persisted for about eighty years, followed immediately upon the publication of sf-specific magazines. There is obviously a segment of humanity that needed an outlet of just this nature, and jumped at it the instant it was available. It really makes you wonder: what did fans do before fandom? That’s one of the few questions Moskowitz doesn’t have an answer for.

He’s more interested in the magazines and fanzines; in many ways his approach is that of the collector. In chronicling the rise and fall of seemingly innumerable fanzines he points out which ones are good and bad; which ones are rare and common and why. One gains a lot of respect for these guys—in the depths of the Great Depression they come up with hektographs, mimeographs and actual printing presses to make fanzines and send them all over the country. Given that the entry cost for my generation is a computer and an internet account to get yourself a blog, I think we must doff our caps to the pioneers of old. And not hold it against them too much that most fanzines only lasted a few issues before fading away. (However, it also gives me a sense of historical continuity: people who revere First Fandom cannot criticize the blogger fans for merely being unedited and poor of grammar; however bad we are, they were worse.)

So, no sooner did fandom start than fan fights arose. By page 10 one of the first sf (or stf, back then, for Gernsback’s unpronounceable term “scientifiction”) clubs, the Scienceers, is feuding internally and with Hugo Gernsback. Apparently in the beginning there was a lot of tension between people who were primarily fans of the fiction and people who were primarily fans of the science. So fan clubs would schism between those interested in pursuing amateur science experiments such as rocketry, and those primarily interested in discussing and collecting the stories. We know which side won out (see the subject material of this blog, for instance), and Moskowitz’s sympathies are also perfectly clear on this matter. What did fans want ultimately? More reading, less blowing stuff up.

Of course, there were still many metaphorical blow ups to be had. As Moskowitz relates all this “objective” history, it becomes clear that he is a “historian” of strong opinions. He obviously isn’t particularly fond of Forest J. Ackerman (at the time of this writing, one of the only survivors of the cast of this book, although currently ailing) but on the other hand Hugo Gernsback can do no wrong. He starts out fairly hostile to Bob Tucker, but quite sympathetic to William Sykora as events unfold. At all times and in all ways, Donald A. Wollheim is portrayed as a jerk. Then, when Moskowitz himself enters the story, we find out the cause of his retroactive opinions.

Moskowitz attempts to maintain objectivity by referring to himself always in the third person—it doesn’t work. In fact, it’s pretty giggle-worthy. Here’s a passage chosen more or less at random:
Moskowitz refused to remit him [Ackerman] further consideration, maintaining that Ackerman’s original letter suggesting the agreement would remain in his files as evidence that his interpretation had been reasonable; that the contribution had been unsolicited; and that, even without Ackerman’s contributions, the extra convention journals would have found ready buyers. He returned to Ackerman, after some delay, a copy of the first issue of Imagination, which had not been sold at the auction. (Ackerman had intimated that Moskowitz intended to keep and eventually sell this item for a small fortune.) This exchange was the foundation of the anti-Moskowitz attitude held by Ackerman thenceforth.
How would this anti-Moskowitz attitude manifest itself? Well, it all comes down to the first World Science Fiction Convention. In 1937, a group eventually called the Futurians, whose members consisted of (amongst others) Don Wollheim, Fred Pohl and John Michel, had formed a committee to organize a WorldCon to coincide with the World’s Fair in New York in 1939. Between 1937 and 1938, the committee hadn’t really done much. Also around this time, Moskowitz and Wollheim became bitter enemies for various reasons of fan club and fanzine wars. So in 1938, Moskowitz founds “New Fandom” with the express purpose of bootstrapping a large fan organization with enough cred to organize the WorldCon. In this he succeeds. Fast forward to the con; the Futurians show up. After talking back and forth the New Fandom organizers (which along with Moskowitz are John Tausari and William Sykora) demand that the Futurians pledge their good conduct. Several do so (such as a young Isaac Asimov and others), but a core of six of them (including of course Fred Pohl and Don Wollheim) refuse to promise to behave themselves, and so are not granted entry. As far as I can tell, this event is “The Immortal Storm” (unless he means the constant, or “eternal” fan bickering that has characterized fandom since its earliest days; he never quite specifies).

So the con goes on and it’s a great success. But there’s a cloud cast over it by the Futurians, and after the con battle lines are drawn in the fan magazines. Ackerman, returning home to California, influences the Los Angeles Science Fiction League to write up “The Expulsion Act!” in its newsletter, thus engendering Moskowitz’s eternal enmity. Factional disputes continue, but Moskowitz finally decides to wrap up his story just before Pearl Harbor, thus leaving the enduring impression that in his mind, WWII is an anti-climax compared to the fan feuds that went before. Here’s the final paragraph:
As a back-drop loomed the threat of another World War as Germany began a systematic annexation of nearby countries and provinces in Europe and France and England came to grips with her. The culmination came on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Things would never again be quite the same in science fiction or science fiction fandom.
Reading the book, one has to realize that everything Moskowitz writes is skewed very purposefully, and that he has a poor reputation concerning printing fully truthful things. James Blish (who features only marginally in Immortal Storm) has this to say about Moskowitz as a scholar in More Issues at Hand (1970):
The most astonishing of these ‘inside’ volumes is Sam Moskowitz’ The Immortal Storm, a history of the publications and internal politics of a small segment of science-fiction fandom, centered upon Mr. Moskowitz himself and written in what appears to be Middle High Neolithic.

Moskowitz is also responsible, however, for one of science fiction’s five authentic books of criticism, Explorers of the Infinite (World, 1963). (It will be noted that Mr. Moskowitz, like many of his fellow enthusiasts, has a weakness for grandiose titles.)… Though Moskowitz is the nearest thing to a scholar that science fiction has yet produced, his research—as P. Schuyler Miller and others have pointed out—is not always trustworthy; and in the past he has shown an irritating tendency to wax polemical in defense of his errors, in preference to correcting them. (1)
I had heard the same thing from other sources, so I approached this as one man’s account of fannish history and would be very hesitant to cite any facts from it without checking them. So it ends up being a fun game of “follow the bias,” figuring out what various people did to piss off Moskowitz such that he portrays them negatively even when describing things they did before he was an active fan.

The most amazing thing about Immortal Storm is that Moskowitz never wavers in his determination that this stuff matters. It is just as important to him in 1952 as it was when it was happening in 1938-9. He feels it intensely, and his over-blown language conveys a lot of that passion. Another example:
But again stark drama was preparing her lines for recitation, and what was to follow, coupled with the coincidence of simultaneous events, was to deal catastrophe to fandom as a whole. Ragnarok had caught the entire fan world napping!
This has to be contrasted with another fan history, The Futurians by Damon Knight, published in 1977. I read this book almost two years ago, but never reviewed it. It seemed like a disorganized, almost lackadaisical collection of anecdotes—valuable to the historian as a source, but not terribly illuminating. It is an important book; compared to Moskowitz’s “New Fandom,” the Futurians and their members were crucial in shaping the field through its Golden Age: Wollheim as an editor, Fred Pohl and Judith Merril as a writers and editors, Asimov as a writer (as well as Cyril Kornbluth and Harry Dockweiler/Dirk Wylie), Virginia Kidd as an editor and Damon Knight as a writer and critic. The Futurians grew up and moved out into the ranks of the professionals, while after New Fandom faded away, its fans apparently mostly stayed fans. So it makes sense that Knight would want to collect something like an oral history to make sure some of their story is preserved for the future. However, he doesn’t care with the same fiery passion as Moskowitz; he’s done other things of import and his time with the Futurians is just one interesting bit among others. Futurians covers the events of Immortal Storm, by the way. It takes a little less than a chapter. Knight admits that Wollheim was quite an asshole in his fan days (“In August, tired of destroying other people’s clubs, Wollheim and his friends decided to create one of their own. They called it the Futurian Science Literary Society. Its first open meeting was held on September 18, 1938.”) But it’s just not that consequential. This lack makes Knight’s book lackluster compared to Moskowitz’s, even though the former is certainly more useful for any serious historian.

Immortal Storm holds a reader’s interest for a variety of reasons. I learned quite a bit about fannish history and the inside story of how fanzines used to work. I was astonished at how recognizable the fandom of yore is to fandom today. Even though I’m not hooked in to hardcore fandom, I’ve heard the charges of “not fannish enough,” which were also leveled back then. The way that some fans are dedicated to making their voices heard about the fiction itself [cough, cough “Guilty!”], whereas for other fans, fandom itself becomes their obsession, also rings true. By 1932 Moskowitz already describes fanzines that are dedicated to documenting fandom itself, without any reference to the fiction they’re all supposedly fans of. This phenomenon surprised me when I first started going to Cons (about 10 years ago now), but now I’ve gotten used to it. So, as long as you are not using this book as a primary source of unchallenged veracity, there is a lot here for the contemporary reader. You get a good feel for the shape of the field as it was in the 1920s and 30s, and Moskowitz’s burning intensity keeps you turning the pages. There are worse faults to have in a book of history.

(1) Blish also has this to say: “People who read nothing but science fiction and fantasy—the Moskowitz syndrome—are fundamentally non-readers, just as people who read nothing but detective stories are non-readers; their gaping jaws signal not wonder, but the utter absence of any thought or sensation at all. They are easy to spot by their reactions when a fifty-year-old story-telling innovation finally reaches science fiction: They are either utterly bowled over by it and proclaim it the wave of the future, or they find it incomprehensible and demand the return of E. E. Smith, who, unfortunately, is dead.”


A.R.Yngve said...

Nice review!

(And "The Immortal Storm" has to be the most pompous book title ever.)

lartronics said...

Once again we see that Sam Moskowitz really knew his stuff.

However, here is some new info about Hugo Gernsback that many of you have likely never seen before.

I’ve recently published a new 900-page biography about the life and times of Hugo Gernsback. It is available on Amazon. Just follow this link:

The manuscript was found while I was in the process of closing down Gernsback Publications Inc. in 2003. It was apparently written some time in the 1950’s. It covers all the areas that Hugo found interesting: wireless communications, science fiction, publishing, patents, foretelling the future, and much more.

Want more info? Contact me at

K said...

If you're interested in a history of SF fandom and content from a feminist point of view, I recommend Justine Larbalestier's book, The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction. It's a very interesting exploration of how SF has dealt with gender and it's also got a lot of juicy personal history of the Futurians and so forth. (In fact, I think I recall that her book's title was inspired by a Moskowitz-edited anthology?) All the fun of fan-feud behind-the-scenes history but with more modern perspective and sociological analysis of how we got from there to here. It's a really good read.

Karen Burnham said...

A.R. - Yeah, unless it's about Global Warming or something, no one should use a title like that.

Lartronics - I'm very happy that you've got a Google Alert on the name "Hugo Gernsback." Perhaps you should keep a record of places you've posted, so you don't post the exact same blurb twice, as you now have here. If you post it again, I'll delete it; this site is not for you to advertise.

Karen- I read Justine's book back before I was reviewing. It was awesome! That's what a book of history should be: well researched, with a distinct point of view and argument, and written in a way accessible to a wide audience. I'll go back and see what she had to say about the "Immortal Storm" controversy. Thanks!