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Thought Experiments: How Propeller-Heads, BNFs, Sercon Geeks, Newbies, Recovering GAFIAtors, and Kids in the Basements Invented the World Wide Web, All Except for the Delivery System

by Roger Ebert



In grade school I had a paper route, and one of the homes where I threw the Champaign-Urbana Courier was a tarpaper wartime housing unit occupied by two University of Illinois students from Poland and their mother. When I came around to collect (20 cents a week), they’d invite me in and quiz me, perhaps because I was an odd and talkative kid who amused them. They read science fiction, and when they moved out at the end of the school year they gave me a big cardboard carton filled with old issues of Astounding Science Fiction–old even then, from the 1940s, with names like A.E. van Vogt, Robert Heinlein, and L. Ron Hubbard on the covers. For a time they sat in the basement, to be taken up, looked at,

*See end of column for definition of notable terms.

and put back down. I was still into

Tom Corbett, Space Cadet. But when I was eleven or twelve, I started to read them, and then I bought my own first prozines. Amazing was the one most to my liking, and when a new issue hit the stands I regarded it with a certain curious quickening of attention that a year or so later I would come to identify with sexual feelings. It offered the same kind of half-understood forbidden world. I read every word of every issue, flat on my stomach, sprawled on top of the bedspread. In one of those issues there was a column reviewing new fanzines, and I sent off a dime to Buck and Juanita Coulson for a copy of Yandro. This was one of the most important and formative acts of my life.

By then I was reading all the prozines–Analog, F&SF, Galaxy, If, Infinity, Imagination, Imaginative Tales, Fantastic Universe . . . see how I can still name them. I waited impatiently for the installments of Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity in ASF. Emsh and Freas, tiny signatures at the bottom of the covers, began to mean a lot to me–and Chesley Bonestell on F&SF, of course. I have hundreds of mags in a closet even now, all with a little sticker on the inside cover that says Roger Ebert’s Science Fiction Collection. Every five years or so, in the middle of another task, I’ll look at them and a particular cover will bring memory flooding back like a madeleine. The cover of If, for example, illustrating the story about a toy that zapped paper clips into the fourth dimension–and what happened when they started leaking back into this one. I bought the Ballantine paperbacks by Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Sheckley, and the Ace Doubles by Murray Leinster and Eric Frank Russell. I bought the anthologies by Groff Conklin and H.L. Gold and the legendary John W. Campbell, Jr. I founded the Urbana High School Science Fiction Club; we rented "Destination Moon" and showed it in the auditorium, we went to a speech on the campus by Clarke and got his autograph, and we made a tape recording of H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds, complete with sound effects and a performance by my classmate Dave Stiers, who later became David Ogden Stiers of M*A*S*H.

But all of that is beside the point. Prozines and fanzines were two different worlds, and it was in the virtual world of science fiction fandom that I started to learn to be a writer and a critic. Virtual, because for a long time I never met any other fans; they lived only in the pages of mimeographed fanzines that arrived at 410 E. Washington St. and were quickly hidden among the hundreds of SF mags in the basement, on metal shelves that cost four books of Green Stamps. "Hidden," because at first I concealed my interest in fandom from my parents. Fanzines were not offensive in any way–certainly not in a sexual way, which would have been the worst way of all in a family living in the American Catholicism of the 1950s, but I sensed somehow that they were . . . dangerous. Dangerous, because untamed, unofficial, unlicensed. It was the time of beatniks and On the Road, which I also read, and no one who did not grow up in the fifties will be quite able to understand how subversive fandom seemed.

Most fanzines had a small circulation of a few hundred, but they created a reality so intriguing and self-referential that, for fans, they were the newspapers of a world. Looking through old issues of Xero, which during its brief glory was one of the best fanzines ever published, I was stunned by how immediate and vivid my reaction was to names not thought about for years: Harry Warner Jr., Mike Deckinger, Guy Terwilliger, Gene DeWeese, Bob Lichtman, bhob Stewart (how evocative that "h" was!), Walt Willis, Bob Tucker, "Ajay" Budrys, Ted White. I met Donald Westlake as an adult (we have been on a couple of cruises together) and he was surprised to find that I was already reading him in Xero. I found established professionals (Harlan Ellison, Donald A. Wollheim, Anthony Boucher, Frederik Pohl, Avram Davidson, James Blish) happy to contribute to a fanzine, indeed plunging passionately into the fray. I confess happily that as I scanned pages and pages of letters of comment ("locs"), my eye instinctively scanned for my own name, as it did forty years ago, and when I found it (Blish dismissing one of my locs), I felt the same flash of recognition, embarrassment and egoboo that I felt then; much muted, to be sure, diluted, but still there. Locs were the currency of payment for fanzine contributors; you wrote, and in the next issue got to read about what you had written. Today I can see my name on a full-page ad for a movie with disinterest, but what Harry Warner or Buck Coulson had to say about me–well, that was important.

Wilson (Bob) Tucker was the first fan I met. He lived in Leland, a hamlet south of Bloomington, not far from Urbana. In the summer of 1958, still in high school, I was working as a reporter for the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette, and was assigned to drive to Springfield to cover something at the state fair. I made a detour past his house. Bob and Fern made me feel right at home, and to meet them again I concocted a sort of fraud on my newspaper. We had a Sunday article on interior decorating, and I convinced an editor that I should write a piece about the household arrangements of one of Downstate Illinois’ major writers. Well, Tucker was major! In the endless fanzine debates about whether SF was really literature, The Long Loud Silence was always cited as real literature. Bob was a movie projectionist in Bloomington who wrote in his spare time (a writer with the same talent would be a best-seller today). The Tucker home was a modest two-bedroom suburban house with attached garage– "turn left off the highway when you get to the motel." I photographed the high points of the interior decoration, which to my eye consisted of Bob’s typewriter, his desk, his shelves of books, his piles of SF magazines, his framed movie posters, and the Tuckers, standing in front of various compositions of the above. This article actually ran in the paper.

A year or so after that I joined Tucker and Ed Gorman, a fan from Cedar Rapids, on a trip to the MidWestCon in Cincinnati. We drove in my family’s Dodge, nearly skidding off a road in Indiana, talking all the way about fandom in a giddy rapid-fire exchange of inside jargon. At a motel in Cincinnati, I made people laugh with my reproductions of Bob and Ray routines, and drank a little beer, which felt like a lot of beer to an inexperienced drinker, and–here is the earth-shaking part–I actually met Buck and Juanita Coulson, Dick and Pat Lupoff, and Harlan Ellison! The Coulsons struck me as two of the nicest people I had ever met, the kind of people where you would like to move into their spare room, and the astonishingly long run of their Yandro was one of the monuments of fandom. The Lupoffs were enormously funny and smart New Yorkers–that city that the novels of Thomas Wolfe had forever colored in my daydreams. Harlan was–how old? Twenty? Young and cocky, with the color proofs for the cover of his new paperback that Berkeley Books was about to publish, and as he showed me the glossy reproduction, I knew envy of a desperately sincere kind.

The summer of 1961, now a student at the University of Illinois, I made my first trip to Europe on a $325 charter flight, and in Belfast visited Walt and Madeleine Willis. They invited me to tea–tomato sandwiches and Earl Grey–and took me around to meet James White, another of Belfast’s BNFs (Big Name Fans), whose prozine collection was carefully wrapped in brown parcel paper, year by year, and labeled ("F&SF 1957"). Fandom was a secret society and I had admission to friends everywhere who spoke the same arcane language.

In the summer of 1962, I found myself going to South Africa as the press agent for a tour of wheelchair athletes from the University of Illinois. After the long bus trip from Urbana, we stopped overnight at a motel near LaGuardia, and I called Dick and Pat Lupoff. We met for dinner at a Chinese restaurant in Times Square. Other members of our party included Lin Carter and his girlfriend, Gerry Deindorf, Walter Breen, and Ted and Sylvia White.

These meetings, these connections and conversations, were important because they existed in an alternative world to the one I inhabited. Fandom grew out of and fed a world-view that was dubious of received opinion, sarcastic, anarchic, geeky before that was fash-ionable. In those years it was heretical to take comic books or "Captain Video" seriously. Pop culture was not yet an academic subject. From Lenny Bruce, Stan Freberg, Harvey Kurtzman, Mort Sahl, and Bob and Ray we found an angle on America that cut through the orthodoxy of the Fifties and was an early form of what would come to be known as the Sixties.

I published my own fanzine (Stymie), cutting the ditto masters on an old L.C. Smith and paying an office supply company a few bucks to run it off for me. My freshman year in college I published The Spectator, a weekly "newspaper of politics and the arts" at the University, and this was a descendent of my fanzine. If I had only known it, I had stumbled on the format of the alternative weekly, but I didn’t know enough to give it away, and the ads and circulation income weren’t enough to keep it afloat; at the end of a year I sold it for two hundred dollars and joined the staff of The Daily Illini, then as now a great independent campus paper, and it took so much of my time that, little by little, fandom drifted out of sight.

From time to time I’ve heard from friends from those days. I spent time with Ed Gorman during a visit to Coe College; he became a mystery writer and wrote a novel about two movie critics who had a TV show. Harlan Ellison and I have had dinner in Los Angeles–once in the home of the eccentric film collector David Bradley, who had a concrete bunker filled with prints behind his house, and showed us the rare early cut of "The Big Sleep." I ran into Dick Lupoff in San Francisco during a book tour–he has a show on Pacifica Radio–and we remembered that New York visit, when he and Pat seemed so incomprehensibly metropolitan to me. I actually sold two stories to Ted White when he was editing Amazing and Fantastic, circa 1970.

But fan friendships, for me, were mostly long distance and conducted by mail, and the influence of fandom was on my writing voice. I became critical. I wrote smart-ass locs about other people’s writing, and read them about my own. I was in a world that stood outside the mainstream. Science fiction was the occasion for fandom, and often the topic, but the subterranean subject was a kind of kibitzing outsider world view. Because of fandom, we got to 1967 ten years before most of the non-fan world.

For that matter, we were online before there was online. It is perfectly obvious to me that fanzines were web pages before there was a web, and locs were message threads and bulletin boards before there was cyberspace. Someday an academic will write a study proving that the style, tone, and much of the language of the online world developed in a direct linear fashion from science fiction fandom–not to mention the unorthodox incorporation of ersatz letters and numbers in spelling, later to influence the naming of computer companies and programs. Fanzines acted uncannily like mimeographed versions of Usenet groups, forums, message boards, and web pages–even to such universal design strategies as IYGTFUI (If You’ve Got the Font, Use It). Some of the same people segued directly from fandom to online, especially to places like the Well–not surprisingly, since many computer pioneers were also SF fans.

Today, fandom survives on the web, where it is no doubt World Wide, and some very slick fanzines have segued into prozines. Are there still analog (paper) publications called fanzines? I haven’t heard that there are. That world has moved on. How long did Yandro last? How much is my first edition of the Fancyclopedia worth? Today a twelve-year-old kid in Urbana has other ways to connect with alternative ideas, other worlds to explore. No doubt they are as exciting as fandom was for me. God knows what we would have given in 1958 for the web.

But for the years of their existence, what a brave new world fanzines created! There was a rough democracy at work; no one knew how old you were unless you told them, and locs made it clear that you either had it or you didn’t. First, of course, was the hurdle of getting your stuff accepted. When Lupoff or Coulson or Deckinger printed something by me, that was recognition of a kind that my world otherwise completely lacked. To look through these old pages of Xero even today, and find Harlan Ellison right about "Psycho" when the world was wrong, and Blish taking on Amis, is to realize that in the mimeographed pages of a fanzine created in the Lupoff living room there existed a rare and wonderful discourse, and it was a privilege to be part of it.

Before he became the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times and the co-host of the TV programs Siskel & Ebert and Ebert & Roeper, Roger Ebert was the editor and publisher of Stymie, an SF fanzine, and contributor of countless articles, poems, and LOCs (Letter of Comment) to many others.

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"Thought Experiments: How Propeller-Heads, BNFs, Sercon Geeks, Newbies, Recovering GAFIAtors, and Kids in the Basements Invented the World Wide Web, All Except for the Delivery System" by Roger Ebert, copyright © 2004, with permission of the author.

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