The Elves, Gnomes and Little Men’s Science Fiction, Chowder and Marching Society would you believe?
In Rich Coad’s fanzine, Sense of Wonder Stories #6, Chris Garcia brings up the rumour that the 1954 Hugos were not awarded because as Chris explains “the Little Men, the group who was sponsoring the convention, had their own annual awards”.
Now it is true that The Elves, Gnomes and Little Men’s Science Fiction, Chowder and Marching Society, a San Francisco Bay Area club, did indeed have their very own award. It was called The Invisible Little Man Award (a strange title since to the best of my knowledge the award has only ever been given to the least invisible of science fiction professionals). According to a short and unattributed article in an issue of the fanzine of the Little Men, Rhodomagnetic Digest V5 #1 (July 1962) to be exact, the purpose of the award was to “give formal recognition to someone in the science fiction field, either a fan or a pro, who has in some way contributed to the betterment of the field, and who has not yet been formally recognised”.
As far as I am aware the Invisible Little Man Award was first given out in 1950 to Ray Bradbury for his collection, The Martian Chronicles. I believe the trophy was handed over at a dinner especially arranged for the event. The Invisible Little Man Award was again awarded in 1951 to George Pal for producing adult science fiction films (Pal’s truly appalling film, The War Of the Worlds, was a couple of years in the future so the Little Men can be excused for thinking this). This second trophy was handed over at Westercon IV, an annual convention which was held in San Francisco that year.
Now according to that previously mentioned article the Invisible Little Man Award wasn’t awarded again until 1961, at Westercon 14 in Oakland, when the trophy went to editor Cele Goldsmith in honour of the improvements she wrought on those venerable science fiction magazines, Amazing Stories & Fantastic Adventures.
Assuming this is all correct then I think it’s unlikely the Little Men handed out an Invisible Little Man Award at their worldcon and then forgot all about it. Not impossible of course, stranger things have happened, but most unlikely I think you will agree. My theory is that the rumour about which Chris Garcia writes was started because at some point the 1954 Worldcon Committee perhaps discussed handing out the Little Men Award at the con. I can imagine the idea being considered because it would have been an appropriate occasion to revive the award. However, if they did consider it I assume they probably decided it would be tactless to drop a set of awards decided on by the fandom at large from the worldcon programme in favour of a single award decided exclusively by the The Elves, Gnomes and Little Men’s Science Fiction, Chowder and Marching Society.
Sometimes all the Devil wants to hear is, “Get thee behind me Satan.”
“Well now. That”s a very kind offer Mr Beelzebub and you can rest assured that I will give the ownership of my immortal soul some serious consideration. I was wondering only the other day who to leave that and my second-best tea set to because I know all my children have sets of their own and the grandchildren are too young of course but there is always my cousin Elsie. Have you met my cousin Elsie? She’s a very sweet thing but awfully scatter-brained and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if she has left her immortal soul on the train because she travels a lot you know and always forgets to go to check with the lost property people after she discovers something missing. Oh, I remember the day we went to London to see George VIII. He was starring in Much Ado About Nothing at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane and on the way home Elsie forgot her umbrella and David Lloyd George had to sprint after us to give Elsie her umbrella back. He was Prime Minister back then you know and gave me a knighthood to give to my father because Lloyd George knew my father and of course my father knew Lloyd George. Why I remember the time we were all invited to Sandringham to…”
The drawing used above started life as a cartoon in Punch. Much as I like the art I wasn’t keen on the joke about it being a non-smoking carriage that went with it so I replaced it with an idea of my own. Feel free to not like my alternate joke if you so choose.
‘Cause in sleepy London town, There’s no place for a street fighting man!
Feel free to guess who this is.
So lets start with some background.
The Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation was first presented in 1958. It doesn’t appear to have been an especially popular addition as ‘no award’ topped the list in 1959 and again in 1963. This is perhaps why in 1964, Pacificon II, the worldcon held in Oakland, California added the category of Book Publisher and dropped Dramatic Presentation. The folowing year, Loncon II, the 1965 worldcon held (not surprisingly) in London, England, left the Book Publisher Hugo in place of the Dramatic Presentation Hugo on their nomination ballot. This was possibly done because the Loncon II committee had assumed that the Pacificon II committee had made a formal change to the Hugo categories. It’s also possible that the Loncon II committee felt the Book Publisher category would be of more interest to the largely British membership of the con.
In November 1964 the fiftieth and final issue of Ron Ellik’s newszine, Starspinkle, was mailed out with the Loncon II nomination ballot included. At least one person was not happy to see that…
The following was written by Ron Ellik and appeared in Vair-Iner, a fanzine published by him as part of the going away celebrations being held in honour of the fact that Ellik was about to move to move from LA to Washington). I’ve edited it slightly to remove a few details not relevant to the story but otherwise this is how Ron wrote it:
On the night of the Go Away party, Harlan called me. He had just received the fiftieth, final issue of STARSPINKLE, and he was upset.
“Ron! Harlan! What’s this goddam Hugo nomination ballot I just got? Who sent this out? What happened to the nominating committee? Why didn’t London contact anyone on the study committee? Who do I talk to?” That was about how his part of the conversation went, an all I could do was explain that the London convention committee has decided to ignore the two motions regarding Hugo Award nominations passed at the Oakland business session, and as far as I could tell they were within their legal, if not their apparent, rights. He wanted to complain directly to the London group, and I apologized for not having Ella Parker’s phone no. He assured me he could get it from Information. We said good-bye, and as I came back into the room to tell the assemblage what all that had been, I suddenly realized the time – it was 6:26 pm Sat 7 Nov, Pacific Standard time. By all rights, it should be 3:26 am Sun 8 Nov, Greenwich Mean Time – an hour at which Miss Ella Parker would give Harlan an extremely Mean Time if he woke her.
There are events in the tide of history with which man may not interfere. I sat back into the Brag game, and when I had lost another 17¢, the phone rang.
“Ron! Harlan! I just talked to Ella Parker!”
“At 3:3O am” I asked.
“Yes,” he said, with (I swear it) a touch of quiet apology in his tone, “and I wish I’d thought of that. You know, Ron, she’s an extremely unpleasant woman.” I relayed sections of this to the rest of the group, who were gasping with the exertion of silence amidst their gigantic laughings.
It seems Harlan presented his side of the story, and Ella informed him the London committee had voted on these matters, and elected to continue traditional methods of Hugo nominating– and, further, to drop the drama award., installing the Best Publisher award in its place. Ella, of television sf shows, said, “You know, we don’t see any of those things over here, anyway.” Harlan can be a tremendous mimic, and by this time I, too, was almost vainly attempting to control my laughter.
We are going to do this and that, Harlan had told her, and she informed him she had better things to do than stand around just before dawn and argue this sort of thing. He said something I shall not quote, which he quoted to me, and Ella hung up.
Harlan wanted to publish this outrage in STARSPINKLE, but it is folded; I suggested the Hugo Study Committee (of which he is an appointed member) was the best outlet for him – if he could convince the other two US committeemen to act, they could speak as an official body of some sort of other. He thanked. me, and I went back to tell everyone what they had missed, and then we played cards some more.
When I had lost perhaps half a dollar, Harlan phoned again. He read me a letter. He had talked to two dozen people since his trans-Atlantic call – other Study Committeemen, convention committeemen from past years, etc – and this letter, signed by Harlan, cited these several people as being, each, in at least passive agreement that London should not do this thing. In conclusion, Mr. Ben Jason and the group producing the physical Hugo trophies had agreed with him to withhold the trophies from the London convention.
We eagerly await news of London’s answer.
And there you have it folks, if you want to be a successful squeaky wheel then you need to really apply some of that old-fashioned elbow grease. Ah, I hear you ask, and was Harlan, that tiger of the telephone, a truly successful squeaky wheel? Well, yes. To quote various issue of Ron Bennet’s newszine, Skyrack:
Skyrack #72 (November 1964)
Further to the Hugos there’s a funny story going the rounds at the moment. Following the example of the Pacificon II, the London Worldcon Committee has decided against presenting an award for a dramatic work, such as a film or TV show. It is understood that a certain Committee member recently suffered a three a.m. phone call from an irate writer who stated that he had spent over $300 in publicity for his own dramatic work, who asked how could he possibly win a Hugo for this work if one wasn’t to be presented and who announced that unless this decision was retracted he would not join the convention. I tell you putting on a Worldcon is great fun.
There is incidentally some little discussion going on behind the scenes about the manner of balloting for the Hugo awards and there will possibly be a change in the system employed by future conventions. London is employing the old well-tried system, and had agreed to do so before the storm broke over our heads. Some very sensible comments have been made by both sides in this argument which has happily not degenerated to personalities. Let’s keep it that way.
Skyrack #73 (December 1964)
The last issue ran a story about an author phoning a London WorldCon Committee member in the middle of the night. It is now common knowledge that said author was Harlan Ellison who phoned Ella Parker from New York to complain about the London decision not to award a Hugo for a dramatic presentation. The position has been greatly complicated since then by various fans, Harlan among them, publishing reasons why London should or should not abide by its Committee decision.
Skyrack #79 (May 1965)
The London Worldcon Committee, which originally followed the lead of last year’s Pacificon in dropping the drama award, have bowed before the general feeling prevalent in fandom and have heeded what has been a significant number of write-in nominations regarding this category. The Committee is undoubtedly to be congratulated, not only upon the reversal of its original decision, but upon the admirable manner in which it has conducted itself in the entire matter. Despite obvious provocation from certain sources, the Committee has not responded in kind, resorting to personalities. Well done, London!
However, despite the above Harlan didn’t have it all his own way. Like that 3am phone call it’s also common knowledge that he was trying and win a Hugo for one of the two 1964 episodes of The Outer Limits for which he had provided the script; The Soldier and Demon with a Glass Hand. It was not to be though, despite Ron Ellik himself producing two special issues of Starspinkle to promote Ellison’s work. Instead fandom chose to nominate Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and The Seven Faces of Dr Lau. In the end it was Dr. Strangelove that received the the rocket in 1965. Harlan had to wait till the following year for Hugo glory. That was when he won the Short Story Hugo for ‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman.
The creator of the Daleks, Terry Nation, has admitted he moulded them on the Nazis. Thus the Daleks are violent, merciless, and pitiless cyborg aliens who are determined to conquer the universe and exterminate every other race they view as inferior, which is to say all of them. This is hardly news, Nation admitted this as far back as 1978 in an interview which appeared in Starburst Magazine (probably not the first time this came up so feel free to enlighten me as to when Nation first admitted it).
What doesn’t seem to get much mention though is how the Daleks are hardly an outlier in this regard. When it comes to British science fiction Nazis, fascists in general, and a love of eugenics are topics which have have popped up more than a few times. Sarban’s novel, The Sound of His Horn, and shorter stories such as The Fall of Frenchy Steiner by Hilary Bailey and Weinachtsabend by Keith Roberts are good examples of this. In the realm of television dystopian series such as The Guardians and 1990 have featured fascist governments ruling Britain while in Blake’s Seven something about the uniforms worn by its soldiers suggest to me that the Federation might also be just a little bit on the fascist side.
Remind you of anybody?
More recently another British TV series, Misfits, played with an alternative timeline in which Germany had won WWII and Nazis ruled Britain. Heck, even in Space 1999 the protagonists encountered a planet where individuals with any physical deformity were ‘eliminated’. This particular idea was also used by Nigel Kneale in his TV series (and later film) Quatermass & the Pit (retitled as Five Million Years to Earth in the US). Which is not to say every villain used in in such outings is an umpteenth generation SS officer but the Nazis and eugenics clearly have been a favoured form of evil for British writers ever since WWII.
Which leads me to today’s topic, Devil Girl From Mars, a 1954 British science fiction film from Danziger Productions. I watched this one just last week (I found it on Vimeo and you might too if it hasn’t since been taken down) and while I can’t tell you that it’s a great flick, neither would I label it as terrible. If I had to give Devil Girl From Mars a one word rating that word would be unambitious. Yet in a way it’s very lack of ambition is what made it interesting to me.
The reason I call Devil Girl From Mars unambitious is mostly because the plot feels like it has been filched from the sort films about Nazi spies or saboteurs being made in Britain only a decade before. Like them Devil Girl is set in a remote location, in this case an inn deep in the Scottish highlands during winter. As with those wartime films the opening scenes introduce a large number of characters; the elderly Scottish couple who own the inn, their barmaid, a crippled handyman, a small boy, a glamorous city woman, the escaped convict boyfriend of the barmaid, a reporter, and a scientist, the last two wandering around the the Scottish Highlands in search of a reported meteor. These films always required such a varied cast in order to demonstrate how British folk from all walks of life would firmly united against the Nazi, or in the case of this revamp, the alien menace.
As was also the tradition with such British films of the 50s certain scenes would descend into overly fraught melodrama. This seems to have been a ploy designed to establish the degree of sacrifice certain characters would be making in order to defeat the Nazi, or in this case alien, menace. It’s always a safe bet that at least one or more of the cast who is required to aggressively emote will go on to make such a sacrifice before the film ends. Personally, I associate this sort of performance with amateur theatrics and I don’t think I’m alone. The cast of the BBC radio comedy, Round the Horne, took great delight in expertly lampooning this sort of thing. Betty Marsden, as Dame Celia Molestrangler, and Hugh Paddick, as ageing juvenile Binkie Huckaback would overact dialogue such as the following:
Binkie: I know.
Celia: I know, you know.
Binkie: I know you know I know.
Celia: I know. Then why can’t you give it to me?
Binkie: It’s not easy Fiona.
Celia: It’s not hard Charles. If you try. And now you’re going.
Binkie: I have to. This is something I should have done a long time ago.
Celia: Is it her? Daphne?
Binkie: Yes, Fiona. I must go. She needs me.
Celia: I need you. Does this mean nothing?
Binkie: Daphne needs me more. Much more. But I shall think of you all the time I am with her.
Celia: I’ll wait for you Charles. You will come back to me won’t you? Please say you’ll come back to me.
Binkie: I always come back don’t I?
At this point Binkie takes Daphne the dog for a walk.
Anyway, so we’re sixteen minutes in before the previously mentioned meteor the professor and reporter are looking for, or ‘unidentified white aircraft’ as the radio announcer calls it, arrives on screen and proves to be a rather decent looking flying saucer for a 1954 science fiction film. It lands and sits there glowing menacingly until minute twenty-four when Nyah, the devil girl of the title steps out. As can be seen above all the posters depicted Patricia Laffan, who plays Nyah, in a skintight catsuit. Laffan actually wears a black mini skirt with stockings, mid-calf boots, and a long black cape. Does this make her a more impressive looking alien threat? Hmm… either works if you ask me. The catsuit would have made her a predecessor to Diana Rigg as Emma Peel whereas this outfit makes her a predecessor to Jacqueline Pearce as Servalan.
Almost immediately after exiting her ship Nyah encounters the crippled handyman trying to flee home and using what looks like a glue gun disintegrates every part of him but his glasses. Having displayed the sort of ruthlessness that would win make a Dalek proud Nyah then appears at the hotel and explains that she’s from Mars, that there has been a war between women and men which the women won, the women now rule Mars but ‘the males have fallen into a decline and the birth rate is dropping tremendously for despite our advanced science we have still found no way of creating life’. Turns out that Nyah’s solution is to collect some nice, healthy breeding stock from Earth. Upon hearing about this plan the reporter is inexplicably outraged by the idea that Nyah will proceed to London and select a few such specimens to take back to Mars. I could understand if he was a bit jealous or if British men truly hated breeding but I’m pretty sure it was neither of these.
This is the point at which the retooled Nazi spy script started to not work for Devil Girl From Mars. Unlike Nazi spies Nyah’s intentions don’t threaten the British way of life in any way. I’m sure if she made it to London and announced her plan to the authorities there they would be able to provide her with more than enough willing volunteers. Even if she announced it was a one way ticket I doubt there would be any shortage of men lining up for the physical. I should perhaps also point out that despite her brusque demeanour (very like the stereotypical Nazi she was based upon) Nyah is not an unpleasant threat. Combine this with the fact that all she wants to do is take a few men back to Mars and it becomes very difficult to empathise with this British desire to stop other people from having a good time.
Of course Nyah does talk like a recycled Nazi:
Today it is you that learns the power of Mars. Tomorrow it will be the whole world.
Fill your eyes Earthman. See such power as you never dreamed existed.
You fools! Do you think you can hurt me with this? Even your limited intelligence should have convinced you by now that you cannot harm me.
Talking tough like this is all very well but it has to be backed up with action in order to convince the audience. This sort of dialogue from a Nazi character works because the audience knows what the Nazis were capable of. When an alien whose plan is nothing more than to collect a harem talks this way it just sounds empty and pompous. Yes, she killed the cripple handyman but she doesn’t even boast of this to the other characters or threaten to kill them all she leaves. I’m pretty sure a Nazi would not have made such an oversight. Another area where the scriptwriter needed to tweak the Nazi spy plot I think.
The majority of the plot revolves around Nyah making multiple visits to the inn as she waits for her ship of living metal to repair itself. While there she amuses herself by telling the humans about how powerful she and her race are and how humanity can do nothing to thwart her. The Brits look scared at these pronouncements and then when she leaves they immediately make plans to thwart her, none of which come even close to succeeding (as Nyah keeps predicting). At one point Nyah takes the scientist back to her ship to show him around and browbeat him with some truly impressive technobabble. A little later she shows off her robot to the whole group. Chani the robot is a big, bulky, man-like device which shuffles around awkwardly and disintegrates things in a rather similar manner to the Martians in the 1953 version of The War Of the Worlds. I suspect all this coming and going was caused by the fact that these Nazi spy movies usually had multiple villains and for some reason it was decided not to give Nyah any companions. This meant that scenes which previously would be split amongst various villains all required her presence and thus a certain amount of scene repetition.
Eventually Nyah chooses to take the escaped criminal boyfriend with her and predictably the scientist is able to tell this fellow how to cause the ship to explode and shield British men from the attention of alien women. Nyah’s ship takes of with the boyfriend and her inside but before the ship gets very far it disintegrates in one of the best explosions I’ve seen in a science fiction film.
As I wrote at the start of this article this is a competent but unambitious effort. Things are set up early on and paid off later, the characters all have something to do in plot terms and apart from that lovely final explosion the effects are decent without being really impressive. Patricia Laffan is quite good as Nyah the alien from Mars and her outfit is quite impressive looking but the rest of the cast fail to rise above soap opera quality. The film isn’t sufficiently engaging plot wise as there is really very little at stake and Nyah is made too indestructible to generate dramatic tension. On the other hand it’s quite well made for a 1954 science fiction movie, they really did put a decent amount of effort into it. I did find the soundtrack took some getting use to though as the musical score is used quite aggressively to to tell the viewer how they should feel about each scene (a not uncommon practise in 50s movies it has to be said).
What I found most fascinating about this movie was how so many of the details suggested the script was cribbed from earlier films about Nazi spies invading British soil. I would certainly label Devil Girl From Mars as exhibit A when making a case for the Nazis as an integral part of British science fiction.
Also of interest is the fact that Devil Girl From Mars had a very positive reception in Australia. As can be seen from the above review scanned from the Friday, 28 June, 1957 issue of the Western Herald newspaper not only did the film garner a positive reaction but was also paired with movies such as The Colditz Story and The Big Heat, films that have retained a higher reputation than Devil Girl.
Above and beyond the relative quality of the films quoted above I can’t see how anybody could decide that Devil Girl From Mars was a logical pairing with either of them.
In Bizarre V4 #1, a fanzine published by Walter E. Marconette and Jack Chapman Miske in January 1941, there’s an article by famed early science fiction author E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith titled The Open Mind. In this piece ‘Doc’ goes to some lengths to explain how all too often readers who complain about impossible situations and inventions are quite wrong, that many things commonly assumed to be impossible can’t absolutely be proved to be such. To quote Smith:
Hence fellows, this plea for more real thought and less dogmatism in your judgements and pronouncements. There are impossibilities, of course. Not as many as there were a few years ago, to be sure; but unless unless and until our language, elementary mathematics, and habits of thought change most radically, quite a few impossibilities will remain.
This necessitates a definition of “impossibility.” For the purpose of this article, sketchily and in a very few words, here it is:- That which violates a natural law. Not a theory, please note, but a LAW.
Smith then goes on to explain the difference between mathematical and philosophical reasoning:
Philosophically, it is by no means a certainty that the sun will rise tomorrow morning. The observational fact that it has done so every morning up to now does not establish a natural law. It sets up an extremely high degree of probability; but that is all: and in that connection it must be remembered that it was against a probability of even greater magnitude than that that the very earth upon which we live came into being.
Mathematically, however, as opposed to philosophically; by celestial mechanics and its proven laws; the sun’s rising tomorrow morning becomes a certainty–although, even there, the mathematician is forced to stipulate that no new force shall become operative in the meantime.
From there ‘Doc’ Smith goes into some detail, giving examples of what he considered ‘impossible’ and what not (and putting the boot into one unfortunate commentator along the way). On the whole for a chemist by training who wrote novels featuring coruscating beams of force and similar phenomena he comes over quite well. I’m not sure I buy his argument that cross-breeding an elephant with a mosquito can’t be proved impossible but then I have the unfair advantage of 77 years of history on my side. (Yes, it’s potentially possible that genes from one might be spiced into the embryo of the other but I’m not going to count that, even if it’s practical, because it’s too far short of the half and half sort of hybrid Smith clearly had in mind.)
However it’s obvious I have a problem with this article or why else would I be writing about it? Well that problem appeared right in the first four paragraphs, just before Smith sees fit to expound his already quoted fine sounding sentiments about less dogmatism and more thought from the readers of science fiction. To quote:
To tell any man that he has no sense of humor is to insult him practically beyond forgiveness. Yet how many men actually have a real sense of humor?
Similarly, any S-F fan will contend–and will uphold the contention with might and main–that he himself is open mindness incarnate; that his mind is as pellucidly clear and as unobstructed as intergalactic space. Yet how many of us are kidding ourselves?
I will admit that as a class S-F fans are more open-minded than most. They have to be, or they would not be fans. This, it seems to me, is axiomatic, from the very nature of science fiction. However, that admission is, a la Shakespeare, damming with faint praise indeed; for it is literally appalling that so few people make any attempt whatever to think for themselves, that so many are either unable or unwilling to take any mental nourishment that is not completely predigested.
Nor has open-mindedness any close relationship to brain power. Scientists as a class can think–that is the way they earn their livings–but are they really open- minded? Witness the treatment accorded by scientists to almost every propounder of a new idea. They closed their minds to the idea of a round earth: they knew and proved that it was flat. Scientists, only a few years ago, knew and proved mathematically that any heavier-than-air machine could not possibly fly. And today, anyone who upholds in strictly scientific circles the intrinsic possibility of space-flight–as I have done more than once–is very apt to be regarded as a crackpot.
And there we have it, as dubious an argument as can be found on the average Internet forum.
For example I was very much surprised to learn how the scientific community rejected the possibility that the Earth might be round. I was under the impression that the Ancient Greeks first propounded the idea of the Earth as a sphere and that this has been the accepted scientific view ever since. I would research Smith’s claim that this was otherwise but curiously he didn’t then go on to list the names of any scientist who supported the flat-earth theory, nor did he quote any argument put forward by scientists to disprove the roundness of this planet (there are a few such arguments but none of them were favoured by the scientific community at the time this article was written). Perhaps this was because Smith realised how difficult it would be to back up his claim and instead left his accusation unsubstantiated rather than weaken it.
In the spirit of fairness I have to admit that some eminent scientists did claim heavier than air flight was impossible, or at the very least impractical, but I very much doubt it was as cut and dried topic within the scientific community as ‘Doc’ would have us believe. Again, much easier to make unsubstantiated accusations than complicate your argument with with facts.
I have to wonder if Smith was in fact sulking somewhat because some people, who may or may not of been qualified to discuss scientific matters, had complained that space flight and other predictions of ‘Doc’ Smith novels such as the Skylark and Lensman series were scientifically impossible. Indeed this feels emotionally all too close to a cliched mad scientist rant. All it needed was for him to include something about showing them all.
I wonder if Marconette or Miske received any letters querying any of Smith’s claims? Perhaps not as he was an awfully popular author at the time and I’m not sure that many fans of that era had the scientific background to call into question the word of a scientifictional god like E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith. Either way I suppose we’ll never know because I believe that there was only one issue of Bizarre ever published. If there were any letters written to the editors on this matter I assume they have long since disappeared into the aether.
Which is a pity because I’d really like to know if I’ll ever get to see coruscating beams of force. I imagine they would make for a pretty good light show.
A skull ain’t nothing but a close shave gone wrong.
“Attention warriors of Zlinn! I have decided that we will not be invading Earth after all. It turns out the Olympic sculling event isn’t what I thought it was. The lizard men can have the place for all I care!”
The warriors of Zlinn made their first (and not surprisingly their last) appearance in When the Skull Men Swooped which appeared in Scoops #3, 24 February 1934. Scoops was a British magazine which published a good deal of primitive science fiction. Like most of the stories which appeared in the magazine When the Skull Men Swooped has no author attributed to it. A lucky escape indeed for whoever was responsible given the quality of the story.
I’ve long been a fan of Jack Vance’s fiction for a number of reasons. One of these is the way he liked to throw quirky details into his stories. There were often no reason for these details as they weren’t designed to advance the plot (well okay, very occasionally yes they did but usually no they didn’t). Mostly Vance just liked to add a little local colour to the fictional landscapes his narrative was passing through. A little local colour, as actually exists in the real world, is something far too rare in science fiction of any era.
Of course it can be argued that unnecessary detail is, well, unnecessary, but I would counter by suggesting that any story which is set in more than a single room, building, or town is enhanced by diversity of environment. There’s a reason why the planets used as settings in the Star Wars movies are so mocked. One planet with an apparently homogeneous environment can be waved away but when they keep turning up it’s hard to maintain a suspension of disbelief.
Now most good science fiction is better than that but even so a lot of fictional settings do feel all too like different streets in the same suburb. If an author creates an interesting, alien world that’s good but what is even better if the can make the alien feel of it less homogeneous.
Oh but Doctor Strangemind I can feel you cry. I’ve already worked so hard on that alien environment to make it convincing, not to mention the plot and the themes and the characterisation and the hey hey hey!
Fear not my hard working friend I feel your pain and have the perfect answer. All you need do is slip on a bandit mask and steal some local colour. Now, before you get outraged by my lack of morals don’t worry, I’m, not suggesting you indulge in anything as sordid as plagiarism. No, what you want to do is not crib ideas from other authors but from real life. Trust me, it will work better than you expect. Remember China Miéville’s 2000 novel, Perdito Street Station, and the really cool city it was set in with all those varying locations? I’m will to bet that the entire city in that novel was was little more than a slightly retooled London (not the inhabitants though, but they’re a topic for a different day). Now if China Miéville can borrow an entire city to play with why can’t you?
Not that your local colour has to be an entire city you understand. For example in Jack Vance’s 1969 novel, The Dirdir, his protagonist visits an inn where where all the food has the same acrid flavour. When asked why this is so the waiter points to a large black insect scuttling across the floor and explains that these creatures have a terrible stench and get into everything so they are deliberately included in every meal since the food is going to taste of them anyway.
So let’s take as an example the steampunk genre given it has massive potential for local colour, both in the variety of potential invention and the way such devices might be used. With a little research it’s possible to unearth a whole range of failed inventions that could be inserted into a story as part of brief but interesting scenes. By the way these devices are used and by how the locals react to them the author can illustrate not only the alien nature of their world but delineate in what way it’s alien.
The later is a particularly undeveloped area in terms of fiction, possibly because this is also an area in which truth is more fantastic than fiction. Take for example that best loved example of steam generated transport, the railway engine. Right from the start travel by rail was extremely popular despite the opposition of the religious and medical fraternities. Bishops claimed that to travel at fifteen miles an hour was blasphemous and that the sacrilegious who used this new form of transport would die in terrible railway accidents as God showed his displeasure. Meanwhile doctors warned that such excessive speeds would pump all the air out of the carriages and asphyxiate the passengers or at the very least cause their internal organs to be put under such stress that internal injuries were a certainty.
Now while such dire warnings turned out to be hollow nobody could deny that in the beginning railways were indeed dangerous to travel on. The lines were not fenced off to prevent livestock or road traffic from wandering onto the rails. Even worse single tracks were the norm, communication between stations was minimal, and the efficiency of engine brakes inadequate so any unexpected delay or change to scheduled services was a recipe for collision as trains found themselves sharing these single tracks.
This was where US engineer R.K. Stern entered the picture. Stern was an electrical engineer who became interested in the possibilities of this new means of transport. Stern thought he had the answer to the vexed question of single track collisions. Stern should have stuck to electrical engineering.
What R.K. Stern did was build a train with s sloping front and rear. Track identical to that of the line the train was to travel on was then fitted on top from nose to tail. Head on collisions were thus impossible because one train would simply run over the top of the other, allowing both to go on their way without even needing to slow down.
Okay, before we go any further I’d like you to close your eyes for a moment and just imagine what that would be like, two iron mountains belching steam, hurtle towards each other until one climbs on top of the other. Feel free to shudder if it helps.
Stern built prototype trains and some track for them to run on at New York’s Coney Island Pleasure Grounds in 1905. Apparently the trials were a success, but with the qualifiers that the trains travelled at no more than ten miles an hour and that everybody riding on them found the experience of the trains passing over each other terrifying. Not surprisingly there were no takers among the railroad companies for such a risky solution and the idea went no further.
However, what may be too terrifying to be experience in real life is perfect fiction fodder. Such trains could make a delightfully alarming appearance in a steampunk novel. Imagine having your protagonist board a train in order to cross the Great Salt Flat and then innocently ask why such an important means of transport is a single line? Pause for dramatic effect and then with a bone-shaking rattle comes the alarming answer. (And don’t tell me you’re so pure and good that you would never do something so humorously evil to one of your characters because I’m not going to believe you!)
But perhaps you would prefer a spot of local colour that’s a little more subtle? Fear not for I have you covered there too. Let’s talk about the mechanics of mechanical hat advertising. Back in the late nineteenth century the average entrepreneur was dissatisfied with the effectiveness of billboards and posters. It was widely suspected that the general public had stopped noticing such advertising, that it had evolved into an ever changing background of blurred shapes and colours for the average city dweller. In response to this concern the sandwich-board men appeared, lost souls wandering city streets with advertisements strapped to them fore and aft.
Not everybody saw the sandwich-board men as the right answer though. Some businessmen were worried that that these bulky walking advertisements were a nuisance on crowded city streets and created negative feeling towards the businesses they promoted. Only theatrical manager Sidney Squires and his engineering friend Edward Moorhen came up with a solution though.
They invented something called the Improved Pneumatic Advertising Hat. This was an extra tall top hat fitted with a hinged top. Inside the hat was a battery and a tube which ran down to a large rubber bulb which was held concealed by the wearer. When this bulb was squeezed vigorously the tube inflated, causing the lid to rise until it was at a right angle to the hat. This would cause the battery to light up whatever message had been attached to it.
In theory this was a clever idea, brightly lit slogans suddenly appearing at head height would be hard for the average pedestrian to ignore and this would be without the inconvenience of dodging around sandwich-boards. However in practise users complained that children couldn’t resist thrown stones at these hats and that the weight of them cause head and neck pains. This was enough to ensure the Improved Pneumatic Advertising Hat was never more than a passing fad.
However, like the previously discussed leap-frogging trains, such practical considerations need not concern the author of a steampunk novel. With a slightly more powerful battery the pneumatic hat would be an interesting addition to the police or other keepers of the peace. Imagine an officers searching for the protagonist by raising their hat lids to reveal battery-powered miniature search-lights. Or perhaps the protagonist discovers that spies/smugglers/revolutionaries are using signalling devices concealed in their hats to advance their wicked plans. Really, the possibilities are endless, such hats might even be included as local colour in the form of advertising devices as they were originally envisioned.
Okay, now I’ve covered transport and advertising the next obvious area to cover is facial hair. This is because in my experience the beard and the moustache are criminally underrepresented in steampunk fiction. Oh yes, facial hair often receives passing mention by an author, but that’s all the reader is offered, passing mention. This is a great pity as the nineteenth century, the era steampunk is naturally based upon, was a golden age for the follicle. For example, as I wrote about elsewhere, and in other circumstances, photographs of officers serving in the US Civil War demonstrate that conflict involved a wider range of military facial hair than any war before or since (authoritative corrections to this impression of mine happily accepted).
So naturally I want to conclude this article with a hair related invention. However, I’m not going to write about the moustache cup as it has been done to death. I think by this point we all know everything we want about the moustache cup so instead I’m going discuss the possibilities of the moustache hat.
In actual fact though while the source I discovered it in called this device a hat it was in reality a wire skullcap with appendages. The idea was that the cap would be placed upon the head before meals and one’s hair pulled up between the strands of wire. A quick brush and nobody would ever suspect you were wearing it. Then, when it came time to eat, the wearer would simply reach up and pull down from behind the ears two extendable strands of wire with clips on the end. These clips would then be fastened to a suitable point in the moustache, thus holding the soft and luxuriant hair of the moustache away from whatever was to be consumed. This, it was claimed, prevented any and all moustache related accidents at the dinner table. However, since all record of whoever it was that invented this device has been lost in the mists of time I’m inclined to suspect the moustache hat didn’t work nearly so well as they first thought. I suspect the inventor ended up preferring anonymity rather than the ignominy of having one’s name associated with a failed invention.
Failure or not I’m sure I don’t need to point out how much such a device would add to most steampunk novels. If nothing else describing one in use would be a slick way of giving facial hair the prominence it deserves. And now I think about it a female version might be possible, a wire extension being used to draw a curtain of hair in front of one eye to create an air of mystery. Ah, metal wires, the gift that keeps on giving.
As you can see from the three examples explored above a little research into past devices can add considerable individuality to the landscape of a novel if imaginatively applied.
Giant inflatable unicorn skull photographed outside of the High Court of Australia, Parkes Place, ACT 2600. The skull was not seeking redress through the High Court after being called ‘mythological’ by representatives of the Australian Government. In fact it was simply pining for the fjords as part of the annual Enlighten Festival several years ago. I doubt unicorns seek legal redress if they feel they have been slighted. They have a horn for a reason you know.
Susan Wood was a Canadian literary critic, professor, author, and science fiction fan who edited The Language of the Night, a collection of Ursula Le Guin essays which discuss various aspects of fantasy and science fiction. In her fanzine, Warm Champagne, Wood wrote about a 1977 seminar she attended along with a number of other science fiction types. I think you’ll be able to guess why I’m repeating the story here:
I have been back to Berkeley, where I delivered my paper, saw Ursula Le Guin, and had dinner with her, Elizabeth Lynn and Terry Carr. Also got to see Dignified Ursula (all of us sitting cross-legged in a Thai restaurant and little giddy after a day of Academic Serconity) using the skewer from her barbecued beef to flick grains of rice at Saintly Terry Carr. (You wondered what Pros do when they aren’t signing autographs?)
The nadir of the Sercon-Academic Stuff came when an earnest Jungian critic, the young man (she said patronizingly) who organized the seminar, tried to get Ursula to pin down the Meaningful Symbolism of her work. “Trees, you use a lot of trees. They seem to represent Good.”
“Well, yes,” said Ursula with her usual tact, “I do like trees, yes.”
“And rocks now, Rocks are Bad.”
Ursula, straight-faced, “Why, no. I never met a pebble I didn’t like.”
Academic, undeterred, asked her how she celebrated the Vernal Equinox; did she strip and dance on the lawn to the fertility goddesses, or what?
Ursula, still deadpan, left a meaningful, then replied, sweetly, “That’s none of your business.”
It’s a great little anecdote but I have to admit I have a hard time believing anybody would ask a question like the one Susan Wood claimed the academic asked Ursula Le Guin in regards to the Vernal Equinox. It feels to me like her account drifted from reality to whimsy at that point. Still, I could be utterly wrong, perhaps that’s how Jungian critics think. Perhaps we should be asking the tough questions of our authors? Questions like:
Do you think rocks are Bad?
Are you ever tempted to flick rice at your editor?
Do you dance naked on the Vernal Equinox?
If you do ask please report back. I’m sure we’re all desperate to know the general attitude of science fiction and fantasy authors towards rocks.
Despite the title above this story doesn’t start with Stan Lee. Well get get to him in due course don’t worry, Stan Lee is inevitable after all, but first there needs to be some scene setting.
Like any profession the folk who deal in the buying and selling of second-hand books can recite a litany of peeves and dislikes in regards to their work. Not surprisingly most of these complaints revolve around the behaviour of the general public. Not you, I hasten to add, I’ve no doubt that if you’re reading this then you are the thoughtful and discerning type who wouldn’t dream of adding to a book dealer’s woes. Even so it’s possible for the average collector to miss a few tricks, some of which may surprise you. Consider for example the following complaint lifted from a private mailing list:
You need to add to that list the frustration of being offered a recently inherited collection only to discover that before calling the seller has thrown away everything they assumed was irrelevant rubbish. Why somebody not familiar with a collection and who usually has little or no interest in the subject the collection is built around assumes they are the best qualified person to decided what is valuable and what is not is beyond me. People don’t understand about ephemera!
This is not the most common complaint from book dealers (that belongs to members of the public with an unrealistic belief as to the value of what they’re offering for sale) but I’ve seen the matter of ephemera brought up more than once.
So what is ephemera? To put it simply ephemera is the term used for any written or printed matter not meant to be retained or preserved. Usually this refers to material such as posters, handbills, sales catalogues, invoices, and the like. When it comes to book collecting the term is generally taken to also include anything relating to an author or the book trade in general. Manuscripts, letters, newspaper clippings, photographs etc are all generally considered to be ephemera.
Unfortunately for those of us who like ephemera (and also those libraries and other institutions that collect such material) the general public assumes ephemeral material has no value. So when such people encounter, for example, promotional material produced by publishers or book stores they throw this ‘rubbish’ away without realising that these unassuming scraps of paper are frequently both rare and the repositories of useful historical data.
Of course not everything that finds its way into a collection is worth preserving. Some years ago I discovered in a book I’d borrowed from the local public library the printout of an email a previous borrower had left there, presumably as a bookmark. As the email contained sufficient detail about the sender I posted the printout to their address along with a polite note suggesting they be more careful in the future.
Sometimes though what comes unannounced is interesting in it’s own right. Some years ago I purchased Jon White’s copy of The Eighth Stage Of Fandom by Robert Bloch. What I wasn’t told by the seller was that between it’s pages was a note from Bloch himself. Jon White was a noted New York dealer is science fiction books and magazines for many years so I don’t suppose you will be entirely surprised to see the note from Bloch was a request to purchase copies of two magazines. A quick search on the Internet Science Fiction Database revealed that the two magazines requested were issues in which stories by Bloch had appeared.
I won’t try to convince you, gentle reader, that this note is in any way valuable but I think it adds to the book I found it in. It’s not just another copy of The Eighth Stage Of Fandom, because this copy comes with the mystery of why Robert Bloch would be searching for those magazines nearly twenty years after they had been published. Well I enjoy speculating on such matters anyway.
A note from a author in a book of their writings isn’t all that unlikely, especially if the author was, like Robert Bloch, a prolific writer of notes and letters. There was another time though that I found something truly unexpected. It was in 2013, not long after I had received a package from a UK dealer which contained various British fanzines published back in the fifties and sixties. Inside an issue of The Eye #3, a fanzine published in December 1954 by Tedd Tubb and other members of the London Circle, I discovered some folded and very flimsy scraps of paper. They don’t look like much but none-the-less I looked at them closely. Somebody had saved these scraps for a reason and being the sort of person I am I assumed I would find that reason interesting.
The outer layer was a sheet of notepaper which had belonged to somebody called Ray Fawcett. That much was obvious because printed at the top of the sheet was:
Below that was an address in Addiscombe, an area of South London. So far so boring. On the other side though very faintly scrawled was gold:
To save your eyes from strain what’s written above is as follows:
Anybody who finds this
The typing & questions are by a youthful Ray Fawcett
The scrawl is by Stan Lee
So, Stan Lee at last, because on the other two thin and flimsy scraps are a series of typed questions to which very brief answers have indeed been scrawled. Before we get to the questions and answers though, let me point out that just because these papers were tucked inside a fanzine from the fifties that doesn’t mean the papers were from that era. A quick search on eBay, revealed that the seller I bought my fanzines from also auctioned off a copy of Sanctuary 2.1, a fanzine published by Ray Fawcett. Mostly likely then this seller had acquired part of Ray Fawcett’s collection and that the fanzines I bought were obtained by Fawcett second-hand. However why he later put these papers, which judging by the references made to comic books (Tom Servo. “They’re not comic books! They’re graphic novels!”) can’t date from earlier than the mid-sixties within the pages of something published more than a decade before is anybody’s guess.
So now that I’ve made that clear just what did the youthful Ray Fawcett ask Mr Lee?
Is it just me or is it strange (no Tom Servo, not Doctor Strange) that Ray Fawcett refers to Stan Lee in the third person? I don’t know how old Fawcett was at the time but I’m guessing in his early teens to judge by his own description of ‘youthful’ and some of the spelling mistakes in the typing. Perhaps he felt a bit overawed by the thought of addressing somebody who even back in the sixties was considered a god among men by many Marvel fans.
It’s a pity that Stan Lee’s scrawl is so very scrawly if only because I’d really like to know who the author is that Stan admires the most. If anybody can decipher those barely formed letters and provide me with an answer I will be most grateful.
As for Ray Fawcett’s place in the scheme of things the earliest mention of him I’m aware of is in Skyrack #93 (published by Ron Bennett in November 1966) in which ‘fanzine editors Ray Fawcett and Bram Stokes’ are mentioned as having attended the Horror Film Club of Great Britain’s First Annual Convention. I then used a bit of triangulation by searching on Ray Fawcett and Bram Stokes simultaneously. You want to find somebody in my experience look for their friends too, it eliminates so much chaff. Anyway this search turned up several mentions of a fantasy/horror fanzine called Gothique. Apparently Derek ‘Bram’ Stokes had been one of the editors and Ray Fawcett one of the writers.
I mentioned my discovery to various people and as usual it turned out that Mark Plummer was able to add to the story for me. Searching through a copy of Gothique #6 in his possession he discovered mention of various Ray Fawcett fanzines.To quote Mark quoting from Gothique:
The reviews aren’t all that positive. Dave Griffiths doesn’t seem impressed with Fawcett’s ‘ramble [in Ash] on how great his magazine is and how much it’s improved’. He agrees it has improved but feels it’s down to Fawcett’s readers to say that. Griffiths also reviews Hero, an heroic fantasy fanzine. This is mostly given over to to denouncing Fawcett for spelling Elric ‘Erlic’ but apparently the issue also included ‘an article on Stan Lee, comic strip writer, something I’ve never seen before’.
It seems pretty clear to me then that the papers I have here were used by Ray Fawcett to write that article about Stan Lee mentioned as being included in Hero #1. Again, like the Bloch note, I wouldn’t try to convince you that these sheets of paper have any significant value, Stan Lee didn’t even add his signature after all. On the other hand what this discover lacks in cash value it makes up with an interesting story.
And that’s why collections should not be approached as carcasses to be stripped and the prime cuts sold to the highest bidder. Instead they should be approached with care lest you trample right over the best stories they contain.
Remember, always tread carefully and carry a big search.