Round and Round with Revolution

Thursday , 25, May 2017 14 Comments

Fred Pohl (left) & possibly Donald Wollheim (right) look on as JackWilliamson (center) meets a crowd at Nycon I in 1939. Photo from Howard DeVore as published by FANAC.

Cast your mind back to the late 1930s, a world in transition:

The world was finally emerging from a crushing depression, Europe was in turmoil following the Great War and a series of socialist and other revolutions, Hitler’s Germany was on the rise, having successfully annexed both Austria and Czechoslovakia while the great powers dithered, fascism was gaining power not only there but seemingly everywhere in opposition to the socialist wave, and technology was progressing at a break-neck pace.

Just two months after the grand opening of the New York World’s Fair in 1939, and on the edges of this tumultuous time, the very first Worldcon was held in New York – NyCon I as it was eventually called. And there was war in Fandom.

Now, it must be said that this wasn’t by any means the first “con” – that honour goes to what Dave Kyle called The First Eastern Science Fiction Convention[1], which was held in Philadelphia in 1936.[2]  It was also by no means a large affair, mind, being just a visit to the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society (PSFS) by members of the International Scientific Association (ISA), by reports of people who were there involving only a dozen people or fewer.[3] But this was a meeting of the early minds of American SF fandom:

  • John Michel – NY (who originated the idea of some outing for the NY chapter of the SFL in the first place)
  • Donald Wollheim – NY (who specifically suggested a visit to Philadelphia)
  • Milton Rothman – Phil (who hosted the meeting at his home and chaired the meeting)
  • Fred Pohl – NY (who served as secretary)
  • Dave Kyle – NY
  • William Sykora – NY
  • Herbert Goudket – NY (who was behind the camera for the apocryphal photo)
  • Robert Madle – Phil
  • Ossie Train – Phil
  • And some fellow named Hahn[4] along with, presumably, others to bring the total to about 12.

This is not a mere digression, however, since I suspect the seeds of revolution were planted on that fateful October 22 in 1936.

The key factor here is probably Sykora, who was an enormous fan from the beginning.  He wasn’t just a charter subscriber to Amazing Stories when the eponymous Hugo Gernsback launched it in 1926 but also a core member of a number of early science and SF associations, such as The Scienceers[5], the SFL (GNY branch), the International Cosmos Science Club, and the ISA.  An association of note that Sykora was most emphatically not a member of was the Futurian Society.  And so begins our real story.

The Futurians numbered quite a few names that are well known in modern Fandom: people like Isaac Asimov, James Blish and his future wife Virginia Kidd, Damon Knight, Judith Merril – and some of the GNY-SFL members who traveled to Philadelphia: John Michel, Fred Pohl, Dave Kyle and Donald Wollheim.

Now, the New York Futurians[6] were remarkably influential, considering that they never really numbered very many, were never really outside the Greater New York region, and in fact only lasted about seven years. But they were intense, and differed from the more “ordinary” Gernsbackian SFandom, which insisted that fans and SF authors should ideally strive for the advancement of science – specifically, the Futurians were progressives of the time – Bohemian, anarchistic in organization, prone to free verse in poetry and decadence in literature and art.  They were sympathetic to the anarchist and communist efforts against fascist Franco in Spain (and other Fascists), and themselves defined a Futurian as one who:

“thru SF rise to vision a greater world, a greater future for the whole of mankind, and wishes to utilize his idealistic convictions for aid in a generally cooperative and diverse movement for the betterment of the world along democratic, impersonal, and unselfish lines.”[7]

Though Futurian thought was often referred to as Wollheimianism the idea really originated with John Michel in 1937:

At the 1937 Third Eastern Science Fiction Convention in Philadelphia, Donald Wollheim read a speech penned by Michel entitled “Mutation or Death!”[8] which denounced “the Gernsbackian delusion” of science alone as the way forward: Michel in this speech denounced Mussolini and other fascists, denounced what people might call today “the military industrial complex”, and declared the solidarity of SFandom with “the heroic defenders of Madrid and Shanghai.” – his declaration that SFandom was obligated to join forces to work toward a future utopian world state was taken by many to refer to communism (probably a justified assumption given the congruence between his rhetoric and that of Bolshevik revolutionaries of the era, not to mention Michel’s involvement in the Young Communist League)

This began a(nother) rather rancorous cycle of feuding in US fandom, with Michel and certain other Futurians (notably Donald Wollheim and Fred Pohl) growing increasingly political, which rubbed rather a lot of fandom the wrong way, including solid “Gernsbackian” science first fans such as Sam Moskowitz and William Sykora, the latter being a particular bugbear for the Michelian Futurists for reasons I really don’t understand – I presume simply because he was one of those who most bluntly told the kids to settle down.[9]

Things really came to a head, though, in 1939, at the time of the first official Worldcon, later dubbed Nycon by the inimitable Forrest Ackerman: this convention, being held under the auspices of the New York fandom, was chaired by Futurian nemesis Sam Moskowitz along with two others well hated by the utopians: William Sykora and James Taurasi.

These three men not only disapproved of the injection of politics into SFandom by the Futurians, but were keenly aware of the opinion of other fan organizations and more importantly the fact that the convention was likely to be fairly high profile owing to the fact that the Worlds Fair then going on in New York was themed “The World of Tomorrow” – how could the first ever major science fiction convention not attract attention?  How would it look if brash, outspoken young men and women seemed to be talking (socialist) revolution?

As a result, the Triumvirate (as they were to be called) made a decision later known to fannish historians as “The Great Exclusion Act” to ban Michel, Wollheim, Pohl and others from attending, on account of rumours that they intended to issue yet another manifesto during the proceedings, whether approved or not – a concern that was based on past disruption at the smaller Newark convention in 1938[10] and the discovery of a pamphlet[11] that was written and distributed by fellow Futurian Dave Kyle and others .[12]


A dispute in fandom over what SF should be and what it should achieve.  A dispute over what the tone and obligations of fandom should be like.  A dispute, even, over what precisely defines rightfan and wrongfan thinking.

How does that quote go?  Ah yes:

“History doesn’t always repeat itself.  Sometimes it just screams, ‘Why don’t you listen to me?’ and lets fly with a big stick.” – John W. Campbell Jr.


[1] But which the attendees officially dubbed the Philadelphia Science Fiction Convention in reference to the fact that both the Republican and Democratic national conventions had been held there earlier in the year.

[2] And in fact, there’s even some dispute as to whether this was the first: it was a meeting, certainly, and they took the name “convention” for the business meeting, but it may be that the event held by the UK’s LeedsScience Fiction League in January 1937 was the first true “con”.

[3] Though John Michel’s account in a fanzine later that year reputedly claims there were only 9 attendees (and he refers to a photo – though I haven’t been able to locate one) Dave Kyle – who was also there – says there were “barely a dozen” in his own recollection of the event .  I like to think of the attendance as being 10±2 with one of the minimal 9 – Herbert Goudket – being a kind of “Schroedinger’s Fan” as he was supposedly there, but not shown in the photo because he was behind the camera.

[4] . I don’t believe I’ve ever seen Hahn’s given name…er…given, and as a result every time I see or write the name I have the irrepressible image of James Tiberius Kirk expressing his outrage at being outwitted by his ancient nemesis. I feel certain the gentleman in no way resembled Ricardo Montalban, however.

[5] Possibly the first SF fanclub ever!

[6] Not affiliated with other groups calling themselves Futurians, though the Left Coast group in LA with the same name did apparently move en masse to the Right Coast to join up with them…just in time for the society to collapse as a result of the lawsuit filed by Wollheim in response to “The X Document” – a one shot publication that detailed an internicene conflict among the Futurians of New York.

[7] Thus saith Fancyclopedia 2.

[8] Full text of Michel’s manifesto “Mutation or Death” is available here.

[9] It should be remembered that many of the players in this drama were younger than Michel, who at the time of Nycon 1 in 1939 was only 22 – some of them were still in their teens throughout this controversy!

[10] This convention was marred by accusations of high-handed and dictatorial action by the organizers, and various sniping among political factions in fandom…sound familiar?

[11] The full text of the infamous Yellow Pamphlet is available here.

[12] Who, strangely, despite being the nucleus of the decision to Exclude, was allowed to remain.  All reference to this seems to agree that he was allowed to stay because he was already in the hall…and yet, it appears that some others who were distributing the pamphlet, including Robert Lowndes, Cyril Kornbluth and Jack Gillespie were ejected. I’m at a loss as to what the difference was, unless it was simply that Kyle was physically inside the hall at the time the decision was made, while the others were distributing pamphlets outside.


  • Rawle Nyanzi says:

    Quite a good history lesson.

  • Kevyn Winkless says:

    Thanks both. I really think this is relevant to the #pulprevolution actually, not to mention other aspects of SFandom these days. And anyway – while on any ordinary day I couldn’t care less about anything other than “is this story awesome?” the truth is that understanding how we got where we are now can sometimes be illuminating regarding what we can find on the shelves.

  • Durandel Asturias says:

    Thank you for writing this. The history is important. Will you do a follow up?

    • Kevyn Winkless says:

      I will – there are a few interesting characters from the early years of fandom who deserve a quick historical review, and whose contributions I think play into some of the things we are seeing in the industry now (or will see in the next few years). I can’t guarantee doing it immediately, but you can count on seeing more fan history from me.

  • John E. Boyle says:

    Fascinating post. Thanks, Kevyn.

  • Fantastical historical account. I especially enjoyed it because of happening to reside a scant 4 miles from Philadelphia on the New Jersey side of the Delaware River.

  • deuce says:

    While I’m no expert on Wollheim, he does seem to have mellowed/turned a new leaf over time. The fiction he consistently chose to publish in the ’60s and ’70s doesn’t seem to fit with his stance in the ’30s. We have this from Brian Stableford:

    After all, keep in mind that even Poul Anderson was a sort of Globalist/UN guy in the ’50s, but then got his mind right.

    • Well, people do change and their opinions shift with the events they experience. But I think the main thing to remember is that these guys really were just kids when this stuff was happening – the eldest were adults in their early 20s, the youngest were teens. We tend to have a skewed view because so many of them earned gigantic names later, and the 60s and 70s era images we have of them get superimposed.

    • deuce says:

      That’s my view. I know I was more liberal when I was that age, especially after I went to college, and that was right before PC really hit big. Churchill;s quote about growing older and more conservative is usually relevant. I think Don’s early love of Merritt, ERB and REH helped bring him around later.

      I look forward to future posts!

  • deuce says:

    I forgot to mention…great post!

  • Tomas Diaz says:

    Kevyn, this is fascinating stuff! Do you have a bibliography of items you’re pulling this from? I’d love to get a hold of books, articles, and essays on this stuff. I’ve just started diving into EE Doc Smith and am curious where he fits into this if he does at all. The time period fits, but I don’t know if he kept his head above the fracas or not.

    • Not as easily as “here, read this” I’m afraid – I went all over getting bits and pieces for this one. I’ve offered some of the sources in the footnotes, and most of them are archives that could serve as a rabbit-hole to pull you into the turbulent 30s and 40s era history of fandom, which really is interesting stuff.

  • Joe F Keenan says:

    Some general observations and discussion. If you reduce man to atoms in motion, you like Science Fiction. Communists/Socialists reduce man to molecules in motion. Commies/Socialist tend to favor Sci Fi. If you think there’s more to man than atoms in motion, you like Fantasy (I recognize there is a spectrum of course, but as a general statement I feel this to be true). If you favor the individual over centralized power, you probably favor Fantasy. Science Fantasy (ERB, LB and others) are attempted resolutions of the binary either/or outlined above. When I came to this realization I could no longer read Sci Fi. Over time, Fantasy became polluted with Sci Fi elements and I lost interest in Fantasy. Science Fantasy however, always maintained its appeal as it seems to be the end result ofdialectical method. Thesis SF – Antithesis Fantasy – Synthesis Sci Fan. As long as Hard SciFi and Fantasy existed this dialectic could evolve. As both were corrupted the dialectic collapsed. Hence, Scalzi. Oh yeah, great post!

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