Posts tagged ‘Will Sykora’

From left, Donald A. Wollheim, Milton A. Rothman, me, John B. Michel, Will Sykora, 1936.

From left, Donald A. Wollheim, Milton A. Rothman, me, John B. Michel and Will Sykora in 1936.

The “maybe” is because some doubt has been expressed. Having heard of what we New York fans did by taking the train to Philadelphia, some British fans promptly organized a gathering in Leeds a few months later. This causes some confusion as to which con deserves to be termed “the first.” Some blog readers have asked me, as one of the few survivors of the Philadelphia event, to describe how it came about.

I believe the idea of the two areas getting together was originally Don Wollheim’s, and I believe that after talking about it by phone with at least one Philly fan (I think it was Bob Madle) they set a date. Anyway, it was an adventure. Going there on the train was a considerable part of it, because I had seldom before taken a train away from the city without a grownup in charge.

To be sure Donald turned 21 right about then, but he wasn’t a “grownup.” He was just one of us. And, come to think of it, Will Sykora might well have been a trifle older than Donald. I never had asked his age. It wouldn’t have seemed polite, would have seemed, I don’t know, like inquiring into things we weren’t meant to know, like the reproductive processes of some creatures that had chosen a different pathway when the main line of human evolution was turning into marsupials or mammals.

Anyway, it is true that I was the secretary. I did take minutes and then, true to form, lost them. I have to say, though, that that was really a pretty trivial loss. No recordable business was brought up by anyone since all we had ever planned to do was get together. What we did do was what fans everywhere have done whenever they were in the company of other fans. We talked about what we had recently read, and which authors we liked and what we wished favorite authors would write next … and then about everything. That is what fans have always loved to do. Talk.

From left, Donald A. Wollheim, Milton A. Rothman, me, John B. Michel, Will Sykora, 1936.

From left, Donald A. Wollheim, Milton A. Rothman, me, John B. Michel and Will Sykora in 1936.

A congratulations note from Mark Olson reminds me of what I didn’t think of on my own, namely that we just passed the 75th anniversary of that earth-shaking event, the very first science-fiction convention ever, held when a handful of us New Yorkers dared the rail trip to Philadelphia to join with a handful of Philly fans and convene.

Three-quarters of a century! My, how time flies when you’re having fun!

Will Sykora, left, and Willy Ley.

Will Sykora, left, and Willy Ley at the Queens Science Fiction League, 1948.

Will Sykora, along with James Taurasi and Sam Moskowitz, were the leaders of the anti-Futurian wing of New York fandom. They had way more members than we, so on votes they had no trouble cutting us off from even things that originally had been our ideas, like the 1939 Worldcon No. 1.

Willy Ley in his natal Germany was a member of the circle of early German rocket enthusiasts, including Wernher von Braun, which were largely responsible for encouraging the research which produced the V1 and V2 flying bombs. By then, however, Ley, a confirmed anti-Nazi, had escaped to America where he became a writer on that and related subjects.

Sykora had no particular connection with Ley. They just both happened to sit at the same table, and there was somebody with a camera.

* * *

The Early PohlThe Early Asimov

 
The funny story about The Early Pohl:

It was the idea of some of the Doubleday editors to publish a book of the first (and generally the worst) stories ever published by a number of sf writers, including Isaac Asimov and me. As it happened, two of Isaac’s earliest stories had been collaborations with me, and he wanted to include them in The Early Asimov. So to pay me for my contribution to the work, I received a 5-percent share of the income from Isaac’s book.

The funny, if embarrassing to me, part of it:

We kept on getting royalties on these books for some time, and in every royalty period the money from my 5-percent share of Isaac’s royalties was always more than my 100-percent share of my own.

* * *

By the way and P.S:

Did you notice how trivial were the dreadful effects of technology that I was trying to worry the reader with? From jet planes, I warned of sonic boom; from cars, the corroding of stonework.

How ignorant we were even when we thought we were cutting-edge smart!

 
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The Brooklyn Science Fiction League met in the basement of its chairman, George Gordon Clark. He was an energetic fellow. When Wonder Stories announced the formation of the SFL Clark did not waste time, he sent in his coupon at once and consequently became Member No. 1. When the SFL announced it was willing to charter local chapters, he acted instantly again, and so the BSFL was Chapter No. 1, too.

We outgrew Clark’s basement pretty quickly; there was only room for about four of us, in with his collection of sf magazines. We moved to a classroom in a nearby public school. What I mostly remember about those meetings is surprise that I couldn’t fit into the grammar-school desks anymore — after all, it was only a couple of years since I had been occupying desks just like them every school day. I remember we talked a lot about how to interpret Robert’s Rules of Order and spent quite a lot of time reading minutes of the previous meeting. If anything else substantive took place, I have forgotten it entirely.

But, ah, the Meeting After the Meeting! That was the fun part. That was when we would adjourn to the nearest open soda fountain, order our sodas and sundaes and sit around until they threw us out, talking about science fiction.

It was always a soda fountain. Not always the same one; over the years we fans must have staked out and claimed dozens of them, all over the city. But we were addicted to ice cream concoctions, so much so that a few years later, in a different borough of the city, after the meetings of a different club, we finally designed our own sundae, which we called the Science Fiction Special, and persuaded the proprietor of the store to put it on his menu.

We were a young bunch, as you can see. Except for Clark, who must have been in his early twenties, the old man of the group was Donald Wollheim, pushing nineteen. John B. Michel came with Donald; and a little later, down from Connecticut, Robert W. Lowndes; the four of us made a quadrumvirate that held together for — oh, forever, it seems like — it must have been all of three or four years, during which time we started clubs and dispersed them, published fan magazines, fought all comers for supremacy in fandom and wound up battling among ourselves.

The fan feud is not quite coeval with fandom itself, but it comes close. None of the clubs seemed to live very long. The BSFL held out for a year, then we moved on to the East New York Science Fiction League, a rival chapter of the parent organization, which seceded and renamed itself the Independent League for Science Fiction. That kept us engaged for another year, then it was the turn of the International Scientific Association (also known as the International Cosmos-Science Club). The ISA was not particularly scientific, and it certainly wasn’t all that international; we met in the basement of Will Sykora’s house in Astoria, Queens. (The ENYSFL-ILSF had met in a basement, too, the one belonging to its chairman, Harold W. Kirshenblith. I do not know what science-fiction fandom would have done in, say, Florida, where the houses didn’t have basements.)

It didn’t much matter what the name of the club was, or where we met. We did about the same things. We held meetings once a month, mostly devoted to arguments over whether a motion to adjourn took precedence over a point of personal privilege. We got together between times to publish mimeographed magazines, where we practiced our fledgling talents — for writing, and also for invective.

The fan mags (now they are called “fanzines,” but the term hadn’t been coined then) were sometimes club efforts, sometimes individual. I managed to wind up as editor of the club mags a lot of the time, but that wasn’t enough; I published some of my own. The one I liked best was a minimal eight-page mimeographed job measuring 4 ¼ by 5 ½ inches — a standard 8 ½-by-11-inch mimeo sheet folded twice — called Mind of Man. Since it was my own, I could publish anything I liked in it. What I liked best to publish was my own poetry, which at that time was highly sense-free, influenced in equal parts by Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” and some of the crazier exhibits in transition.

 
To be continued. . . .

 
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Will Sykora, left, and Willy Ley at a meeting of the Queens Science Fiction League in 1948.

Will Sykora, left, and Willy Ley at a meeting of the Queens Science Fiction League in 1948.

 
Introduction

This arrived without warning from my old friend Andrew Porter, once the editor and publisher of Algol/Science Fiction Chronicle, the only real competition Locus ever had. Andy didn’t say why he sent it, but I guess he just thought I would like to see it again — it’s a part of a chapter taken from a book of mine called The Early Pohl that I haven’t looked at in years. Well, I did get a kick out of some of it (although other parts did just repeat things I’ve written here and elsewhere). Considering how many said that you had enjoyed the chapter I inadvertently reprinted from The Way the Future Was, some of you might like this, too, so I’m going to take a chance and reprint this as well. (Having cut out much, though probably not all, of the stuff that already was in the earlier piece.)

The title of the piece is Andy’s. (It refers to the fact that if you wanted to start an sf club in New York in the ’30s, it helped to have a basement that you could hold the club’s meetings in.) It was also Andy’s decision to include a picture of Will Sykora and Willy Ley at the beginning, although only Sykora has anything at all to do with the piece, and then not much. So I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. As afterwords I’ll attach a little bit about who they are, and I’ll also tell you a funny, if a bit embarrassing to me, story about The Early Pohl, the book this piece came from.

 
BASEMENT AND EMPIRE
From the book The Early Pohl, copyright ©1976 by Frederik Pohl. (Abridged.)

In the winter of 1933, when I was just turned thirteen, I discovered three new truths.

The first truth was that the world was in a hell of a mess. The second was that I really was not going to spend my life being a chemical engineer, no matter what I had told my guidance counselor at Brooklyn Technical High School. And the third was that in my conversion to science fiction as a way of life I Was Not Alone.

All of these new discoveries were important to me, and in a way they were all related. I had just started the second semester of my freshman year at Brooklyn Tech. It was a cold, grimy winter in the deepest depths of the Great Depression. There was not much joy to be found. Men were selling apples in the streets. The unemployed stood in bread lines and prayed for snow — that meant there would be work shoveling it off the sidewalks. Roosevelt had just been elected President but hadn’t yet taken office — Inauguration Day, still geared to the stagecoach schedules of 1789, had not yet been moved up from March 4. Banks were going broke.

There was not much money around, but on the other hand you didn’t need a lot. Subway fare was a nickel. So was a hot dog at Nedick’s, which was enough for a schoolboy’s lunch. You could go to the movies for a dime or, sometimes, for a can of soup to be donated to the hungry.

Brooklyn Tech was an honor school, which is possibly why I decided to go to it in the first place. Like many of my colleagues, I regret to say that as a kid I was always something of an intellectual snob. (I do not wish to discuss what I am now.) Tech had been born in an ancient factory building, next to the entrance to the Manhattan Bridge in the grimiest part of Brooklyn’s industrial riverside district. It had outgrown that and was now spread around a clutch of decrepit ex-grammar schools in the same area. We commuted from building to building, class to class.

I found myself walking from my Mechanical Drawing class in P.S. No. 5 to my Forge and Foundry class in the main building in the company of a tall, skinny kid named Joseph Harold Dockweiler. Along about the third time we crossed Flatbush Avenue together I discovered that we had something of great urgency in common. He, too, was a Science-Fiction Fan, Third Degree. That is, he didn’t merely read the stuff, or even stop at collecting back issues and searching the secondhand bookstores for overlooked works. He, like me, had the firm intention of writing it someday.

Six or seven years later Joseph Harold Dockweiler renamed himself Dirk Wylie. Later still, he and I went partners in a literary agency and later, but tragically not very much later, he died, at the appalling age of twenty-eight, of the aftereffects of his service in the Battle of the Bulge in World War II.

Dirk was the first person I had found like myself. Having learned that we were not unique, we contemplated the possibility of finding still others who would be able and anxious to compare the merits of Amazing vs. Wonder Stories and discuss the galaxy-ranging glamour of E.E. Smith’s Skylark stories. In a word, we went looking for science-fiction fandom.

The bad part of that was that fandom did not yet quite exist.

The good part was that it was just about to be born, when Wonder Stories started a circulation-boosting correspondence club called the Science Fiction League. We joined instanter, and began attending club meetings as soon as a local chapter was formed, where we met others like ourselves.

 
More to come. . . .

 
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Isaac Asimov, ca. 1934

    Isaac Asimov, ca. 1934.

The way I met Isaac Asimov was the way I met almost everybody else who became not only important to me as a teenager but a lifelong friend. Like every other kid in the world, I met a lot of other kids in those years from, say, 14 to 19 — in school, in the neighborhood, in the YCL, in the (don’t laugh) Olivet Presbyterian Church Thursday afternoon teenagers’ class, which I attended until I was 17. But those friends came and went and were gone, while many of the ones I met through fandom were friends all their lives — Isaac, Damon Knight, Cyril Kornbluth, Dirk Wylie, Dick Wilson. In fact, there are one or two — Jack Robins, Dave Kyle — whom I still count as friends, seventy-odd years later, although none of us are very mobile these days and it’s been a while since we got together.

I digress. (In fact, you may have noticed, I do it often.) In those days, the thing was that we kids had been captured by science fiction. And when a burgeoning fandom gave us a chance to meet other captives, we signed up at once.

Like most of us in the New York area, Isaac’s first clue that there was a way to join others came from reading Hugo Gernsback’s magazine, Wonder Stories. In an effort to improve sales, Gernsback had started a correspondence club, the Science Fiction League, and allowed some members to charter local chapters. One, the Q (for Queens) SFL, was in the New York area and was the point of first contact for most of the area’s newbies because they’d read about it in the magazine.

So the QSFL was where Isaac first showed up, but we Futurians kept an eye on their new blood. Anyone who turned up with an interest in writing sf as well as reading it, we kidnapped; that was one of the reasons the QSFL’s heads, James Taurasi, Will Sykora and Sam Moskowitz, weren’t real fond of us. And Isaac made it clear that he was definitely going to become an sf professional writer, as soon as he figured out how.

 
At that time Isaac didn’t give many indications that he would achieve that ambition, much less that he would become I*S*A*A*C  A*S*I*M*O*V. He was, if anything, deferential. Isaac was born Russian-Jewish, brought to America as a small child when his father, who had immigrated early, was at last able to send for his family.

Many of the Futurians had already begun to write sf stories, showing the mss. to each other and talking about the stories’ successes (few) and flaws (many). One or two of us had actually made some tiny sales. (Including me. I had had a truly sappy poem published in Amazing Stories.) A few of us had begun teaming up as collaborators. Isaac yearned, but he had to miss most of that. His parents owned a candy store at the eastern edge of Prospect Park, and their children had to help with the work of running it. Isaac got to our meetings when he could, but seldom to the writing sessions.

 
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