How costumes and conventions brought sci-fi fans together in the early 20th century ‹ Literary Hub
Science fiction has a rich and deep past, with roots dating back to antiquity. Fans and scholars often refer to Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus as its most recognizable point of origin, followed by works by authors like Jules Verne, HG Wells, Edgar Allan Poe and many others. At the beginning of the 20th century, an enterprising publisher, Hugo Gernsback, founded amazing stories magazine, the first publication devoted to the kinds of stories that would be known as “science fiction”. Born in Luxembourg in 1884, Gernsback immigrated to the United States at the age of twenty and soon created a magazine called modern electricitywhich featured articles and dramas aimed at radio enthusiasts, as well as plays they could purchase.
Gernsback was already a fan of a growing number of fictions featuring fantastic technologies written by authors such as Shelley, Wells, Verne and Poe, and he began to include short science-oriented stories in his own publications, including his own serialized novel, Ralph 124C 41+.
Gernsback was not the first publisher to solicit and include science fiction in his publications, but he recognized the appetite of technologically-minded readers, who yearned to imagine what the future might hold, in especially the gadgets they might one day use. To feed this appetite, he founded amazing stories in 1926.
amazing stories was a thunderbolt in a primordial pond: a jolt of energy towards the right set of ingredients. Its bold, garish covers and fantastical content attracted many aspiring science fiction writers and fans, and it quickly became a newsstand hit.
What makes this moment even more significant is that it demonstrated that a fan’s expression of their love of science fiction wasn’t entirely text-based.
Gernback quickly added other series to its lineup, such as Stories of Aerial Wonders, Quarterly Science Wonderand Scientific Detective monthly. In his magazines, Gernsback introduced a useful feature for his readers: a letter column that allowed them to reply to stories or to each other and locate nearby fans.
Gernsback wanted to build a lasting audience that would stay engaged with his publications (and therefore continue to buy them) and in 1934 started a fan club called the Science Fiction League, with local chapters scattered around the world. The desire to meet and interact with other fans grew beyond Gernsback’s network; groups like the Futurians in New York and the Lost Angeles Science Fantasy Society had their roots as chapters of his club, but eventually established their own identity. These groups brought sci-fi fans together for regular meetings to socialize, discuss their favorite stories, and critique each other’s stories. From these fan clubs emerged some of the genre’s founding individuals, such as Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Frederik Pohl, CL Moore, and Forrest Ackerman, who encouraged and challenged each other to break into the growing field of magazines.
The emergence of an organized fandom led to larger gatherings: conventions that brought together hundreds of fans from across the country, and eventually around the world. Organizers of the 1939 World Science Fiction Convention attracted approximately two hundred fans and writers from across the United States, including Asimov and Bradbury, as well as professionals like Amazing sci-fi editor John W. Campbell Jr. Also included were fans like Ackerman and Douglas – who went by the name Morojo in Esperanto – who would soon revolutionize costumes with cosplay.
The pair hailed from Los Angeles, California, and had each been heavily involved in the local sci-fi scene. Ackerman was born in 1916 and fell in love with science fiction at the age of ten when his mother gave him a copy of Gernsback’s amazing stories.
Ackerman jumped into fandom, quickly amassing a personal library of dozens of other sci-fi magazines. He began to write his own stories, although he never seriously pursued a career as a science fiction writer as other fans like Asimov and Bradbury did. Instead, he started writing letters to magazines and other fans. In the 1930s he started his own fan club – the Boys’ Science Club – wrote for various science fiction fanzines and was an early member of the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society. He is widely credited with coining the abbreviation “science fiction”.
Although not the first gathering of fans, it was the first large-scale convention for which fans from all over the country came together, showing everyone involved that they were not alone in their interests. .
It was within this circle of science fiction enthusiasts that he came to the attention of Myrtle Rebecca Douglas in 1937. They both took part in a worldwide language meeting for the fictional language Esperanto, and they a lot in common.
Douglas was a science fiction enthusiast, and the two collaborated on a fanzine called Imagination! the official publication of the LASFS. Ackerman later recalled that she helped produce the print edition: “She was a real pro in the typing, stenciling, and mimeo departments. An excellent concealer. And she was a strong believer in non-stoparagraphing & Ackermanese, God bless her – I say, fully aware of the fact that she was an atheist.
But she was also interested in costumes, and when she and Ackerman traveled across the country to attend the 1939 World Science Fiction Convention, she created two costumes for them to wear to the event. “She designed and executed my famous ‘futuristic costume’ – and hers – worn at the world’s premier science fiction convention, the 1939 Nycon.” The costumes were based on a film the couple enjoyed: an adaptation of the HG Wells novel things to come.
Ackerman’s costume consisted of a green satin cape and a long-sleeved button-up yellow shirt emblazoned with his nickname, 4SJ. In his reminiscences of the convention, Ackerman noted that they based the costume on the artwork of Frank R. Paul and the film things to comeand he described him as looking like “mild-mannered Clark Kent, walking into the phone booth and walking out as Superman”.
In his book Bradbury: An Illustrated Life, Jerry Weist wrote that “this was really the beginning of costumes and masquerading at conventions”. The couple were surprised that they were the only people dressed in costume, and [that] the reaction was mixed, according to Ray Bradbury biographer Sam Weller, who told me that “people asked them, ‘What the hell are you doing?'”
“I just thought everyone was going to come as astronauts or vampires or something,” Weller Ackerman says, saying The Ray Bradbury Chronicles: Life of Ray Bradbury. “We walked the streets of Manhattan with kids crying and pointing, ‘It’s Flash Gordon! It’s Buck Rogers!”
Douglas and Ackerman have demonstrated that they can express this fandom in the real world as well.
“I even had the nerve to go to the Universal Exhibition in it; they had a platform with a microphone, and if you were from Spain, Sweden, France, Germany or wherever, you could come and greet the world in your native language. So I had this fanciful idea of going up and speaking in Esperanto to the world, and saying that I was a time traveler from the future, where we all spoke that language.
In one photo, Ackerman stares at the camera, a smile plastered on his face, dressed in tall boots, uniform pants and a textured vest over a collared shirt. The whole outfit makes him look like one of those characters from the covers of pulp magazines. In another, Ackerman overpowers Douglas, who is wearing a state-of-the-art robe. In his memoirs, The way the future used to besci-fi editor Frederik Pohl recounted the scene: “We met Californians like Forrest J. Ackerman and his female sidekick Morojo, both dressed in 21st century fashion and turning heads in every cafeteria where they entered.”
This moment is remarkable: although it was not the first gathering of fans, it was the first large-scale convention for which fans from all over the country came together, demonstrating to everyone involved ( and also to those who were unable to attend) that they were not alone in their interests. During these early days, visual representations of science fiction appeared through the artwork that adorned the covers of pulp magazines and the occasional science fiction film, such as Metropolis Where things to come. Also, while people have certainly dressed up for costume parties and masquerade contests before this time, the convention appears to be the first time we’ve seen the two phenomena together.
What makes this moment even more significant is that it demonstrated that a fan’s expression of their love of science fiction wasn’t entirely text-based. As fans wrote their own magazines, illustrations, stories, and letters to each other, each contributing to the fandom’s original framework, Douglas and Ackerman demonstrated that they could express that fandom in the real world as well.
Moreover, they would not be alone.
Extract of costumes: A story by Andrew Liptack. Copyright © 2022 by Andrew Liptak. Available from Saga Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.