Michael Dirda explores the history of science fiction

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A week before Christmas, I spent a happy afternoon at the 79th World Science Fiction Convention, known as DisCon III. Even though sf — I prefer the classic acronym over the now commonly heard but juvenile “sci-fi” — has recently been embroiled in culture wars, the programming at the 2021 con was sufficiently varied that any new or old fan could find talks and panels of interest. Strict covid protocols didn’t hamper the enthusiasm of the masked and vaccinated attendees thronging Washington’s Omni Shoreham Hotel. Writer Nancy Kress and artist John Harris were guests of honor, African fantastika was center stage, the 2021 Hugo for best novel went to Martha Wells’s “Network Effect,” and Chengdu, China, after a vigorous campaign, won the bid to host 2023’s Worldcon .

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Note that’s 2023. Before then, writers, artists and readers will assemble this fall for Chicon 8, a successor to the Chicago Worldcon of 1940. As it happens, the father-son team of David and Daniel Ritter devote the latest volume in “The Visual History of Science Fiction Fandom” (published by First Fandom Experience) to the planning, activities and aftermath of that gathering, which firmly established Worldcons as a movable feast. (The first World Science Fiction Convention was held in New York in 1939; in 2020 New Zealand became home for that year’s festivities, though covid required them to be entirely virtual.) In 1940, two daring young men from Denver hopped freight trains to reach that first Chicon; Forrest J. Ackerman — a Los Angeles fan soon to emerge as the field’s most famous collector — dressed as Ming the Merciless from the “Flash Gordon” comic strips (costuming — cosplay — is nothing new) and EE “Doc” Smith, author of the 1928 serial “The Skylark of Space,” appeared as guest of honor. Total membership reached 128; more recent World Conferences measure attendance in the thousands.

The Ritters dedicate their document-rich volume, also available digitally, to Erle M. Korshak, who as a teenager helped organize the first Chicon. Until shortly before his death from him last August at age 97, Erle contributed regularly to online discussion of those distant early days of fandom.

Modern sf usually traces its origins to 1926, when Hugo Gernsback founded “Amazing Stories.” The first volume of Jim Emerson’s “Futures Past: A Visual History of Science Fiction” (www.sfhistory.net) provides a colorful grab-bag of material from that year, starting with the contents — and cover art — of each issue of “Amazing Stories.” Also featured are lists of the science fiction books, movies and plays of 1926, with plot summaries and illustrations, along with interpretive essays by Mike Ashley and Ben Webster. In Volume 2, titled “Dawn of the SF Blockbuster,” Emerson concentrates on silent films, devoting 40 enthralling pages to the creation, reception and restoration of Fritz Lang’s 1927 dystopian masterpiece, “Metropolis.”

The late 1920s and 1930s were also the heyday of Weird Tales. Of all the contributors to “the unique magazine,” the most celebrated remains Howard Phillips Lovecraft, who died at age 46 in 1937, expecting to be quickly forgotten. Admirers of his atmospheric stories about him — my favorite is “The Call of Cthulhu” — would not let that happen.

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No one knows more about this now iconic author than ST Joshi. In his latest study of him, “The Recognition of HP Lovecraft” (Hippocampus Press), he chronicles, in the words of the book’s subtitle, his subject’s “Rise from Obscurity to World Renown.” As always, Joshi writes with clarity and authority, while never hesitating to administer correction to those he disagrees with.

Joshi briskly tracks Lovecraft’s contributions to amateur press publications, his successes and failures with magazine editors, August Derleth’s machinations to publish the huge, posthumous 1939 collection “The Outsider and Others,” and the astonishing post-World War II flurry of paperback reissues, criticism and scholarly editions of his complete fiction, essays and correspondence. Did you know that Anthony Powell, author of the Proustian “A Dance to the Music of Time,” reviewed the first British edition of “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”? While Lovecraft’s views on race, class and ethnicity can be offensive, Joshi points out that his work nonetheless continues to be widely translated and popular in non-European countries around the world.

In science fiction’s lingo, “sercon” denotes serious and constructive criticism. The latest issue of William M. Breiding’s high-quality zine Portable Storage Six is ​​subtitled “The Great Sercon Issue, Part One” and lives up to that promise. It features Fred Lerner’s essay on Jews in science fiction; an appreciation by Jon Sommer of “Earth Abides,” George R. Stewart’s 1949 vision of life after a worldwide plague; a review by Paul Di Filippo of three radically transgressive works by Samuel R. Delany; and Cheryl Cline’s dive into EE “Doc” Smith’s 1931 serial, “Spacehounds of IPC.” Not least, Alec Nevala-Lee recounts his discovery of “Frozen Hell,” the original uncut text for what became John W. Campbell’s “Who Goes There?” That 1938 novella may be familiar to movie buffs as the inspiration for both “The Thing from Another World” (1951) — which closes with the haunting line, “Keep watching the skies!” — and John Carpenter’s even scarier “The Thing” (1982).

Science fiction grew increasingly experimental, daring and literary during the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, just the period covered in Charles Platt’s multivolume memoir, “An Accidental Life” (independently published). In the just-issued fourth volume, Platt recalls his missteps from him as a novelist, various misadventures with women, his early fascination with personal computing, and a few of his pranks and flame wars from him, often carried out in his fanzine the Patchin Review. The contrarian Platt, who is a friend of mine, may be the most divisive figure in late 20th-century American science fiction — with the possible exception of his archenemy, the late Harlan Ellison — but once you start reading “An Accidental Life,” you won’t want to stop. It is just as entertaining and informative as Platt’s two-volume “Dream Makers” (1980, 1983), in which he profiles major mid-century sf writers from Isaac Asimov and Alfred Bester to James Tiptree Jr. (Alice Sheldon) and Kurt Vonnegut .

But enough for now. As these books remind us, science fiction doesn’t merely react to the present and imagine the future, it can also learn much from its complex and fantastically tumultuous past.

Michael Dirda reviews books for Style every Thursday.

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