Over the course of this column, we’ve discussed a range of authors, editors, publishers, and notable books that have contributed to the larger genre conversation. One thing that we haven’t discussed much of is how the fans of the genre contributed, either passively as readers or actively in a variety of ways that we’ll talk about here.
One notable example of organized fandom is the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society.
In 1934, Hugo Gernsback was experiencing a comeback. He was sued in 1929 and then forced into bankruptcy, which lost him his flagship magazine, Amazing Stories, in the process. Undeterred, he jumped back into the business, founding three new magazines: Air Wonder Stories, Science Wonder Stories, and Science Wonder Quarterly. Before too long, two of them, Air Wonder and Science Wonder, were merged into a single title, Wonder Stories. The magazine was moderately successful, but Gernsback noticed something outstanding about his readers: they were passionate about and dedicated to the genre.
Writing in the introduction for the April 1934 issue of Wonder Stories, Gernsback noted that “vogue of science fiction has steadily gained new followers in every part of the world. Today, interest in this subject is international in its prevalence; because there is no country where it is not known. In America, there are actually thousands upon thousands of active fans, who take the movement as seriously as others do music or any other artistic endeavor.”
By this point, science fiction had really begun to emerge as its own separate genre, to the point where the level of readersship could sustain numerous publications all producing similar content. Gernsback had years of experience producing publications, and he was able to find ways for readers to remain engaged with both the content and with fellow readers.
In the same column, he announced the launch of something interesting: The Science Fiction League:
“With such a vast movement, the writer, who has been watching it since he launched his first science fiction magazine in April, 1926, now feels the time is auspicious to coordinate all who are interested in science fiction, into one comprehensive international group. The name of ‘Science Fiction League’ has been adopted as the association’s title. It is to be hoped that this new League will in due time become the parent organization of innumerable local science fiction clubs throughout the world.”
It was a bold assertion of ownership; Gernsback went on to note that Wonder Stories would be the official organ of the organization. The call for clubs was met across the world, with numerous chapters opening across the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom. Peter Roberts, writing in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, noted that the move “brought sf readers together and provided a firm foundation for present-day sf Fandom.”
Mike Ashley, writing in The Time Machines: The Story of the Science-Fiction Pulp Magazines from the Beginning to 1950, noted that “The Science Fiction League was a major force in developing Fandom….The official league membership rose to nearly a thousand. It is difficult to know how may of those thousand introduced new fans and new readers to Wonder Stories. It is probably unlikely that many did.”
Fandom, as it remains in the present day, is an unwieldy creation, with thousands of people with strong personalities all enjoying roughly the same thing. In New York City, Donald Wollheim and several of his friends were kicked out of League meetings for being disruptive, and while readers were engaged with science fiction, they were buying less of what Gernsback had to offer: science fiction simply wasn’t beholden to Wonder Stories and readers were gravitating towards other, competing publications, such as Astounding Stories and Weird Tales, which were experimenting far more.
One chapter of the Science Fiction League appeared in Los Angeles and it attracted a following. Internationally, the League had peaked at a thousand members before fading away. As there was increasing dysfunction in the larger group, one member, Forrest Ackerman, decided it was time to strike out on his own.
Ackerman was born in Los Angeles on November 24, 1916, and he discovered Gernsback’s Amazing Stories when it first hit newsstands. He got hooked and became a major figure in the growing fan community. He’s even credited often with coining the phrase “sci-fi.” When the Science Fiction League formed, Ackerman was an early member.
When he set off on his own, he founded the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society. While every other Science Fiction League chapter closed—as well as many of the other fan groups—the LASFS survives to the present day, the longest running science fiction club in the world.
In the coming decades, the club became an important focal point for the growing science-fiction community. It counted some of the genre’s biggest writers as its members: when Ray Bradbury’s family moved from Arizona to Los Angles, the young storyteller quickly found the group. “A turning point in his life came in early September 1937,” Sam Moskowitz recounted in his early history Seekers of Tomorrow: Masters of Modern Science Fiction, “when poring through the books and magazines in Shep’s Shop, a Los Angeles book store that catered to science-fiction readers, he received an invitation from a member to visit the Los Angeles Chapter of the Science Fiction League.” Through the league, Bradbury quickly got his start as a writer, publishing “Hollerbochen's Dilemma” in the club’s fanzine, Imagination!
Other notable writers found their way to the club as well, including Henry Kuttner, Leigh Brackett, and Robert A. Heinlein. The club formed a gathering point for an entire generation of younger authors who were on the cusp of breaking into the field, and yielded several long-lasting partnerships and friendships that echoed in genre circles. In 1939, several members of the club crossed the country for the first World Science Fiction convention in New York, meeting their east coast counterparts for the first time.
The club persisted with a dedicated group and went on to found two major conventions, Loscon and Westercon, and according to Atlas Obscura, “the FBI placed an undercover agent in the society to monitor Communist influence in ‘fannish’ subcultures.” The club was also responsible in part for saving Star Trek by spearheading an extensive letter-writing campaign to NBC.
The club’s survival in part is likely due to the fact that it has a physical location, supported by member dues. First proposed in the 1960s, the organization purchased a building on Ventura Boulevard in Studio City, and eventually moved to a new, larger residence at 11513 Burbank Boulevard in North Hollywood. The building houses an extensive lending library. In 2011, they moved to their present location in Van Nuys, Los Angeles.
As the longest running club in genre history, it’s an important example of the community that sprang up alongside the production and professional sides of the field. Fandom is a unique and fruitful phenomenon: it frequently acts as an incubator for aspiring authors, and provides a dedicated community that helps to support the art that it loves. Without groups like the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society, genre fiction might have remained a minor curiosity in literary history.