The Internet is truly amazing, but I’m not sure if Millennials who never knew a world without the Internet know that. I thought I’d pass on some old fart stories about how social networking among science fiction fans used to work. They aren’t as bad as the stories my father told me about walking miles to school in the snow in Nebraska, and as some jokester once quipped, uphill both ways. Actually, when I lived in New Jersey in the late 1950s there were times my little sister and I did walk miles to school in the snow. It was a blast. Life then was still very much like that movie A Christmas Story. No computers, cell phones, GPSes, video games, high definition TV, or iPods. Cars didn’t talk to you either.
When I discovered science fiction in the early sixties I didn’t even know there was a separate genre of books and movies called Science Fiction. Well, it certainly wasn’t something they’d teach in school or your parents would tell you about. Before the Internet information was scarce. Back then the philosophy of adults were kids should be seen and not heard. It’s not like now where parents are your pals and they do everything for and with you. Kids lived in Kidworld and information passed from kid to kid. And if you worry about the accuracy of Wikipedia, kidnet was completely unreliable. Theories about where babies and Santa came from were as varied as the religions of the world. Parents like to pretend their kids knew nothing, and would even smack a kid upside his head for saying something smart, so it was better just to pretend to be stupid. So how did I find out about science fiction?
I knew I loved monster movies that would come on TV on Saturdays and sometimes they were about trips to Mars and Venus where four earth guys would find a whole civilization of pointy-bra wearing women. What more could a kid ask for in life? How could I find more movies like this? I liked reading, but mostly read non-fiction books about NASA, dinosaurs and war. In the sixth grade a teacher read A Wrinkle in Time to us after lunch and I wanted more books like that. In the seventh grade I stumbled onto When Worlds Collide and After Worlds Collide, and then Jules Verne and H. G. Wells after seeing movies based on their books. It wasn’t until 1964 when my eighth grade teacher produced a list of approved science fiction writers I could read that I learned the magic words were “Science Fiction.” I then got systematic about finding SF books. A major discovery was some libraries even had SF sections, like at the Homestead Air Force Base Library. Now that I had discovered this wonderful genre I wanted to meet other fans.
My point of that long story is to explain that ideas passed by word of mouth. Networking used to be called friendship. Nobody talked about computers or owned one, they were mysterious giant machines mostly referred to in cartoons, and normal people couldn’t comprehend them except in humor. Not only did kids not have cell phones, but grown-ups frowned on the idea of kids using the family phone. People joke about TV being a vast wasteland with 200 channels and nothing on, but back when I was a kid there were just three channels and the Beverly Hillbillies and Bewitched wasn’t very informative about the real world. Kids today just don’t realize how rich they are in information.
I got to thinking about this when I was reading my RSS feed for SFSignal and it made me realize just how easy it is to locate people interested in the same subject I am. In 1965 I read science fiction pretty much in isolation. I had no friends that read science fiction and whenever I’d meet someone that did we’d strike up an excited conversation. In other words, meeting people with similar interests was random. The science fiction book section wasn’t at a mega-bookstore but was half a twirling wire rack of paperbacks at the drug store.
Social networking meant joining a club of likeminded individuals and meeting face-to-face during monthly or weekly meetings. Before I could drive I felt like I belong to a group by joining The Science Fiction Book Club or subscribing to Galaxy and Analog magazines that had fan letter columns.
Before computers it seemed like science fiction fans were few and far between. Communication with SF fans was through letters in the magazines or fanzines. At first I lurked, like lurkers on a BBS (a bulletin board system, an early attempt a social networking via computers). I just watched and learned. In 1970, just after I moved to Memphis, I noticed a letter in Ted White’s
Amazing from a Memphis guy and I called him up. He told me about the Memphis Science Fiction Association. That’s where I met Dr. Darrell C. Richardson and Claude Saxon, two old time collectors of science fiction and pulps, and Greg Bridges, a guy my age who wanted to produce a club fanzine.
Before there was email, IM and text messaging, there was something called a letter. Most people wrote letters by hand using a pen and forming their personally invented typeface by scratching ink marks on pieces of paper. Individual fonts were hard to decipher because size and shape varied widely. Fans, as we science fiction fans would call ourselves, used a typewriter to create letters to send to one another. Letters worked like emails in that they went anywhere in the world with the correct email mailing address, but they were slow, usually taking weeks to make a two way exchange.
Typewriters are like the keyboard of your computer, but they had a mechanism for handling paper – imagine a printer built into your keyboard – with a typeface installed on a piano key type arrangement that struck an inked ribbon above the paper and left a mark. Typewriting was sort of like using Microsoft Word but infinitely aggravating. You couldn’t edit or correct without a lot of trouble, so the easiest thing to do was strike over words with mistakes. Yet it was a giant step in technology over handwritten letters. The technology originated during Mark Twain’s lifetime, so think steampunk. If you wanted to save a copy of your email message, it required inserting two pieces of paper sandwiching a piece of carbon paper into the printing mechanism – very messy. It was more work than walking miles to school in the snow.
My first proto-computer like high tech gadget was a Smith-Corona portable electric typewriter. After I joined Memphis Science Fiction Association I was brave enough to join an APA – amateur press association. APAs go way back to the 1930s I think, and I joined SAPS (Spectator Amateur Press Association), an informal network of 25-35 people who communicate via publishing zines. Think listserv. You printed 35 copies of your zine, usually mimeographed, and sent them to the central editor, who collated them with the zines of all the other members, and then snail mailed the bundles quarterly back to all the members. Again, picture mailing list, but instead of a computer program doing the work, an actual person had to do all the work. Like letters, this listserv took months for a two way communication.
Very few people, mainly hard core science fiction fans and other nuts took the trouble to be in an APA. 99.999% of people just communicated by talking. There were probably less than two dozen lists APAs in the world. The hunger to know likeminded people and form worldwide communication was limited to those crazy Buck Rodgers fans and similar sub-cultures. At a higher level fans tried to create their own magazines, also called zines, but genzines, rather than apazines (you see we had our own jargon). These had circulations from 20 to 800. They were like frozen web pages or blogs, made out of thick colored paper, again mimeographed and stapled together.
The mimeograph machine was a printer, but very primitive. Affordable models were hand cranked. You’d buy stencils, long sheets of waxy paper that you would type on. Striking a typewriter key on a stencil cleared away the wax leaving a thin area ink would ooze through. Fanzine producers would always get the best typists in the club to type up the stencils, because any mistakes made a mess to be corrected with corflu – you figure that one. Stencils were attached to the mimeograph drum that bled ink through the typed letters on the stencil thus printing on the paper rolling under the drum one sheet at a time. Printing with mimeograph machines was as messy as changing oil in a car, but then Gen Y and Millennials wouldn’t know about that either.
In other words, you had to really want to communicate badly to spend your personal money and time to go through such a dirty process. Producing a zine, like I said, was like creating a web page or blog, but you had to convince someone to read it. There was no Google. Usually you traded your zine for someone else’s zine. Again, another primitive network. Instead of having DNS servers, some people would be zine reviewers, because you could subscribe to their zine and have a Google like listing of current zines to mail your zine to – a type of push technology.
Think of a zine as a web page that could only be read if you held it in your hands and the URL was identical to the creator’s home mailing address. Some would take weeks to load receive. Getting a zine in the mailbox was major excitement and I got them from as far as Australia and England. It was a world wide web, just made of paper and very slow.
It used to be so thrilling to get a SAPS mailing. Think of a mailing list that takes months to get a reply. My zine, The Blue Bomber, named after my first car contained blog like natter about what I was reading, and then a long list of comments about the other zines in the previous bundle. For my first issue of The Blue Bomber, I had to drive from Memphis to Tupelo to use my cousin’s husband’s church mimeograph. He was the pastor. So my next high tech gadget lust was for a Gestetner mimeograph which I bought with Greg Bridges and another fan in a cooperative printing venture.
Fans lived and died by the typer. This was long before word processing. Kids just don’t know how easy life is if you haven’t tried using a typewriter. In 1977 I got a job as an IBM MT/ST machine operator, which was a primitive word processor using two tape drives to edit and save files connected to an electric typewriter. Boy, I thought I was living in the future using that machine. As soon as I heard about personal computers I wanted one, but it was 1978 before I could afford one, then a lowly Atari 400, which wasn’t good enough for the task. I then got a TI 99/4A which also proved useless as a word processor. It was when I got a Commodore 64 that I first had all the components for word processing – CPU, disk drive and printer. By then I discovered bulletin boards and networks like Genie and CompuServe with my 300bps modem.
This put communication with other science fiction fans in real time and that was a major breakthrough. All of a sudden I found thousands of people who loved to talk about science fiction books. Eventually I created my own 2-line BBS with my second 286 PC clone (our current chips should be a 886 by now). At first monitors were green screen and all text. Then I remember spending a small fortune for a VGA monitor with 256 colors. This was the 1980s.
Luckily I worked at a university where we had access to BITNET and other networks including the wonderful NNTP (network news) for group communications. By then I was finding science fiction fans from around the world to talk to by quick messaging called emails, but not the flashy emails of today’s Outlook. By then graphical operation systems were showing up and we could send photos, if you know what I mean, and share cool things like Linux. Finally Mosaic showed up and computer networks blasted into orbit.
A lot has happened in the last 43 years. If I could take my current computer with its hi-rez 20″ widescreen LCD to the past and show my 1965 self he would have thought it more wonderful than anything science fiction had ever imagined. If I could show him how people shared interests with blogs and social networking software it would have blown his little mind. In 1965 I dreamed that by 2008 I would be living on Mars, but living on Earth in 2008 with the Internet is far more science fictional and far out.
Hell, science fiction never predicted the iPod, but don’t get me talking about how much trouble collecting music was when it was stored on vinyl discs.
5 thoughts on “Living in a Science Fiction World #1”
Great article. Loved it. And even though I grew up in the seventies, you’re article reminded me a lot of my childhood. Thanks for posting it.
I wonder when the older pre-Internet world ended? A majority of people growing up in the 1980s, and many people from the 1990s did not own computers. Bill, when and where did you first hang out with SF fans? The 1970s was a great time for conventions and fandom. Computers probably have killed off the fanzine, and by the way, there were zillions of fanzines on topics other than SF, it was a great little art form.
I think the social engineering aspects of the Internet hasn’t even begun to start. The Internet is like the radio and automobile industry in the 1910s and 1920s, but it’s making societal changes fast. BTW, a good book to read about how culture is changed by technology is Empire of the Air by Tom Lewis, it’s about the history of early radio. It shows many parallels to changes made by computers and networking.
Oh boy, there are some memories in this missive for sure! I have the dubious honor of remembering all of it, but you could’ve touched on so much more. Like color TV not coming along until the middle 60’s, right at the beginning of a show that changed the world as well as our perceptions of science fiction: Star Trek. I remember those black and white days very well and would use my little cassette recorder to tape the audio tracks of the series. That way I could listen to them as often as I liked. SF TV changed how fans communicated in a big way once we started to band together and fight the networks for what we wanted to see. Shortly after cancellation of Star Trek, I did the conventions, to which I was introduced by a fellow fan. I did as many in a year as I could afford, and many I couldn’t. From there I got a second-hand mimeo and did fanzines, and the dreaded collation death march around the kitchen table. I was introduced to Unix when fans were battling it out over the phone lines playing an ascii version of a Star Trek game. It was insanely slow but it was the only game online then. Just a couple of years after that, the World Wide Web was commissioned between three physics labs so that they could share data between them more efficiently. Most of us on the outside though, were confined to BBS activity. My sister met her husband through a BBS. BBSes weren’t around long before word got out that limited access to the ultra-exclusive Web was being made available through some of the labs who wanted to make a little extra cash. A year or so passed and then the Web suddenly broke wide open and anyone could sign up and log on. In those days, modems were slow and there were NO ADS OR SPAM OR EVEN PORN out there. Hard to imagine eh? I still remember the first spam I got and how enraged I was that there was little I could do to stop it. I did however write a really nasty letter to the spammer. Back then, you could do that without risk of much reprisal. I’ve been on the Net consistantly since those days and I’ve seen the net grow exponentially. Ten years ago, I did a Google search on my maiden name. It turned up about 2500 hits. Not impossible to visit them all I thought. That same search, done just a moment ago, has turned up 98,000 hits. Yeow. And it’s still growing at that ferocious rate, as more discover the usefulness of being able to create ever changing and ever more sophisticated ways to keep intough with your friends and family, including (but not limited to) creating a fantasy character for yourself and meeting up with friends and family in an online environment for an afternoon of bashing virtual baddies entirely on screen. Man. Such a long way from Ascii Star Trek. From forums, to blogs, to newsgroups, to mailing lists, to YouTube, Photobucket, and Flickr. LiveJournals, FaceBook, Second Life and so forth and so on encourage us to create circles of friends and interact with others in new and heretofore unimagined ways.
And even though I comfortably fit in an old fogey armchair I can kibitz from, I also have a mouse on my end table and a nice large monitor for my fading eyesight.
My mom-in-law used to wonder how we all managed to stay in touch all through the years. Mom, you were born just one genereation too soon to get on the band wagon. Thank goodness I have a firm grip myself. Who wants to go back to communicating by beating on logs?
Thanks for a real mem-dump!
– Remembers using a “portable” that could be called that ONLY because it had a handle on it. Danged heavy thing….
I was born in ’68, but so much of what you said rings true with my own life. Thankfully I had an older uncle to feed my burgeoning science fiction addiction when I was a child. Although he was more than generous with the use of his books, a great deal of his time talking to me was reading me ‘naughty’ passages out of books and generally just trying to be the ‘cool’ older uncle. It hasn’t been until the last 3 or 4 years that I have had a core group of friends around me that not only are avid readers, but are avid science fiction readers. Despite the joy I get discussing sci fi online and reading and writing about it online, nothing can replace the thrill of being face-to-face with someone talking science fiction.
If only more people could read this.