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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Approaching Fifty part 3: The Incredible Shrinking Project

More random jottings inspired by my approaching fiftieth birthday.

I started writing in the late 1970s as a direct result of my interest in science fiction. In the run-up to our A-levels, we were given a free hand to pick a project to write-up. I loved doing these and, bizarrely, two of my old school projects have survived — one on trees and one on Winston Churchill. Although I collect, I'm not a hoarder, so if I lose interest in something I tend to junk it the next time I'm having a clear-out. I have almost nothing left from my schooldays, yet these two projects have survived. The only things I regret not having are the 50-page handwritten Steel Claw story I wrote when I was 15 or 16 and this particular school project.

It was inspired by a book called The History of the Science Fiction Magazine by Mike Ashley... or, rather, four books, as there were four volumes. What I was going to do was research and write-up the history of British SF magazines up to around 1955. Which, by coincidence, was roughly about the point where the third volume ended. And just so you're not confused about the tone that last sentence was written in, I mean it was no coincidence at all.

Now, I'm not sure if I actually owned a single British SF magazine at that point. I was certainly buying The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Analog by then and it was partly because of this that I landed on the idea of doing the project on science fiction magazines. You see, my English teacher at KEGS was the almost legendary Mr McCallum and not only did he also read SF but he had back issues of Analog which he allowed me to borrow.

Although I've emphasised the influence of Mike Ashley's History of the Science Fiction Magazine, this was not intended to be a rip-off. I fully intended doing some genuine research and to this end contacted the Science Fiction Foundation (SFF) which, back then, was based in Dagenham. I travelled up there a couple of times to dig through copies of old British SF magazines, fanzines and whatever else I could lay my hands on in the time I had.

And, talking of time, I managed to keep the guardians of the SFF library busy long after they expected to have the place closed up for the evening. I'm pretty sure it was Malcolm Edwards who, on one of my visits, asked how much longer I was going to be and I, unaware of time passing when I have my head buried in a book, suddenly realised it was seven in the evening. It was also on these trips that I discovered authors with weird names like Vargo Statten, Volsted Gridban and Astron Del Martia. But that's another story entirely.

The background I gathered on these trips to the SFF showed me what a lot of work I still needed to do. I got in touch with Mike Ashley and with Phil Harbottle and, through them, was able to contact some of the contributors to these old magazines — authors like Syd Bounds were still active and some of those involved editorially like Walter Gillings were also still alive.

But it was about this time that the project began to shrink. The first British SF magazine is generally thought of as Scoops, the weekly boys' paper from 1934. Well, I hadn't had much chance to look at Scoops, so I thought that would best be left to one side so I could concentrate on later titles from 1937-56, which still left me with about 30 magazines that had published some 270 issues between them.

Time moved on. My attempts to contact Walter Gillings proved fruitless and I'd hoped to get a first hand account of his work on the pre-war Tales of Wonder. Still, never mind, I still had lots to talk about even if I concentrated on post-World War II titles. In fact, there was probably too much if I was to try to cover every SF magazine from the post-war decade... wouldn't it be easier to concentrate on just those magazines that came out shortly after the war... say, between 1945 and 1949. That ruled out all the Spencer mags, Authentic and Science-Fantasy, which would be a big saving in time and effort.

But even that brief post-war period involved one of the various titles edited by Walter Gillings — the 3-issue post-war Fantasy — and, with time now running short, I reluctantly decided not to cover it as I had received no reply to my letters. And New Worlds was a bit of a non-starter as well. Whilst the original editor (Ted Carnell) was gone, I had been in touch with the original publisher... only to find that his memory was pretty poor. In one of his letters he'd mistaken John Russell Fearn for Eric Frank Russell.

So my project that had originally intended to span twenty plus years and over thirty magazines eventually came together as the study of a single magazine, Outlands, which had lasted just one issue in 1946. But I had some fine information as I had spoken and corresponded not only to the editor but to some of his contributors as well. Where contributors were deceased I had tried to speak to their relatives, which lead to an almost surreal phone conversation with Mrs. Eric Frank Russell, who seemed to think that I was some kind of literary vampire hoping to suck on the blood of her late husband's work, which, she told me in no uncertain terms, I would not be doing because she'd burned the lot. This was all quite upsetting, especially as everyone else I had contacted had been so friendly and as helpful as they could be. I was quite thin-skinned back then.

I have to cut this rather long story short — much as I did back when I originally wrote it up. Sadly, I never saw the original project again but it got good marks. It had included some of the stories that were intended for future issues of Outlands and for a while I thought of publishing the lost second issue. But that notion fizzled out eventually.Maybe it's something I should think about again. It's too late for the 50th anniversary (1996), but it's only four years until the 70th. Maybe I'll try to reassemble my original notes.

My instincts tell me it will sell almost as many as Les Johnson's original magazine, which wasn't many. I recall him saying that he still had plenty of copies left over and we even considered putting a free copy of issue one in with every issue two!

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