Dispatches From the Future’s Past

How a collection of sci-fi fanzines helps us understand the prehistory of the Internet.

Issues of the Science Fiction Fan from circa 1939–40.
Issues of the Science Fiction Fan from circa 1939–40. 

Courtesy of the Hevelin Collection/Ed. Olon F. Wiggins

Predicting the future is a tricky business, possibly even a dangerous one. Nevertheless, when we talk about the history of science fiction, we often focus on its most prescient moments, praising authors who anticipated new technologies or foresaw sweeping social changes. And why shouldn’t we? The genre’s stories are, as sci-fi writer Thomas Disch put it, “the dreams our stuff is made of. “

But it may be science fiction’s fans who have provided the most meaningful barometer of things to come. While novelists, screenwriters, production designers, and cover artists have all struggled to depict the future, sci-fi’s most ardent admirers were often already living it. That’s not to say they were somehow using advanced technologies before anyone else. Instead, they were pioneering ways of being that wouldn’t come into vogue until digital communication appeared on the scene. Long before the Internet began to change how we interact, science-fiction fandom was pioneering forms of communication and association that the Web would eventually popularize.

A clear demonstration of this fact comes via a digitization project currently underway at the University of Iowa. In 2012, the university acquired a massive collection of science-fiction and pulp literature documents from James L. “Rusty” Hevelin, a man who had been described as “a walking encyclopedia of the history of fandom.”* Hevelin’s trove included more than 10,000 fan-produced zines dating back to the 1930s and early writing by Robert Heinlein, George R.R. Martin, and many others.

Le Voyage de L’Isabella au Centre de la Terre by Leon Creux, from 1922.
Le Voyage de L’Isabella au Centre de la Terre by Leon Creux, from 1922. This unique book has a fabric cover brimming with wild and colorful illustrations, and both color and black and white illustrations by Paul Coze throughout. 

Courtesy of the Hevelin Collection

Zines played an important role in the establishment of science-fiction culture. Indeed, many participants in this culture would go on to develop substantial fan bases of their own: Isaac Asimov and Frederik Pohl, for example, were both members of early fan societies. As Karen Hellekson explains in The Cambridge Companion to American Science Fiction, fanzines were typically self-published pamphlets, made from “stapled-together pieces of ordinary-sized letter paper, sometimes folded in half.” Fans would exchange these documents through the mail, often after discovering one another through the letters pages of magazines such as Amazing Stories. At first, zines primarily served as vehicles for editorials and reviews of other publications. Later, some would include fiction and other creative content, and many featured elaborate illustrations like those that adorn some of the items in the Hevelin Collection.

According to Hellekson, in those pre-photocopying days authors of zines would reproduce their work via carbon paper, mimeograph, or other similarly primitive means. Sprucing up these publications was often a laborious task, she writes: “Artwork, if included, would be hand drawn and might be colored by hand, so each copy would be unique.” (This wasn’t always the case; some of the color art in the Hevelin Collection was reproduced by hectograph, but this process too introduced slight variations with subsequent impressions.) These relatively simple printing technologies meant that each copy of each issue had a character of its own.

Winter 1941 issue of Science Fiction Collector.
Winter 1941 issue of Science Fiction Collector.

Courtesy of the Hevelin Collection

Those same printing technologies also meant that many extant examples of the genre are physically fragile, turning them into fundamentally ephemeral artifacts. As Ian Chant notes in Library Journal, the paper on which many of the publications—especially the earliest examples—in Hevelin’s collection were printed “is flaking and finely rendered illustrations are fading.” It’s this that makes the University of Iowa’s digitization effort so necessary. Spearheaded by Laura Hampton, of the university library, this project aims to photograph the entirety of the collection.

Some in the sci-fi community have expressed concern about the library’s effort, especially when it comes to more recent materials. Though they’re not included in the Hevelin Collection, the library’s fan-related holdings include early instances of slash fiction—erotic stories that pair established, typically same-sex characters.* It also likely includes even earlier instances of fan fiction—a form that, as Hellekson writes, originally involved fiction about fans—with the potential to embarrass or otherwise trouble its creators. For those who never expected to see their work circulating beyond their relatively insular communities, digitization efforts can be worrisome.

Hampton stressed that the library is aware of these concerns, though it has received little pushback. The library wants to respect those creators’ wishes as fully as possible. The team is digitizing the entire collection, but very few of those images will be publicly available, partly because the materials in the collection are still under copyright, but also because the library doesn’t, Hampton said, “want to alienate the creators of these zines.”

Wonder Story Annual reprinted stories from other pulps in yearly anthologies. Its structure encapsulates the end of the pulp era and the move toward digest format magazines.
Wonder Story Annual reprinted stories from other pulps in yearly anthologies. Its structure encapsulates the end of the pulp era and the move toward digest format magazines. 

Courtesy of the Hevelin Collection/Best Books Inc.

For now, selected images are accessible through a Tumblr site on which the library publishes images of some of Hampton’s best finds. In the longer term, however, the library plans to crowdsource a transcription project, making the entire collection more immediately searchable for scholars and other dedicated researchers. The goal is to make it easier to study the collection without doing an injustice to those who produced it.

While this endeavor will preserve documents that would otherwise likely be lost to time, it still changes the way that their future readers will experience them. They’ll neither have the feel of paper in their hands nor the chance to contribute images of their own. But digitization may not change them that much. In many ways the culture of early science-fiction fandom prefigures the ways that information circulates online today. Jonathan Senchyne, director of the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Center for the History of Print and Digital Culture (and a former grad school classmate of mine), made a keen observation when I spoke to him about the Hevelin Collection: Many of the cultural developments we most closely associate with the Internet actually precede its emergence. “One of the things I really admire about digitization projects like this one is that they remind us fan fiction and other elements of fan culture don’t originate online,” he said.

The Internet has blurred the distinction between author and audience, creator and consumer, but it’s not the Internet that made that line fuzzy in the first place. Fifty Shades of Grey famously began as Twilight fan fiction and has since spawned fan fiction of its own. Similar cultural feedback loops played out in zine culture long before. Hampton told me that she had come across zines assembled by a very young Ray Bradbury, some of which contained early versions of his stories. Bradbury would, of course, become a major touchstone of the genre in the years to come.

Fandom may have contributed to other forms of contemporary cultural production as well. Though they were, of course, far more sluggish, zines facilitated approaches to collective communication similar to those that would emerge on message boards and in comment threads. “There’s lots of acronyms and deliberate misspellings,” Hampton said, describing the ways fans interacted with one another on the pages of their publications. Their ways of addressing one another look a great deal like the ways we write on Twitter and other outlets today.

In this light, the Hevelin Collection may ultimately offer us more than a means of studying the history of science fiction. It’s possible that it will also afford a better understanding of the ways we live online. As it does so, it may contest what Senchyne calls digital exceptionalism—the idea that the Internet marks a radical break with everything that precedes it. There is, he pointed out, a very real continuity between print and digital culture. That continuity can be hard to see, however, until we study the past through the lenses that digital culture furnishes. Accordingly, Senchyne proposes, it may be the Internet that best equips us to understand the limitations of the Internet’s influence.  

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.

*Correction, Sept. 23, 2015: This article originally misstated that James “Rusty” Hevelin had donated his collection to the University of Iowa. The university purchased the collection from Hevelin. (Return.) It alslo misstated that the Hevelin collection includes slash fiction. While the library’s holdings do encompass slash fiction, these materials are not included in the Hevelin collection. (Return.)