Looking Backwards

Once upon a time it was a big question: How did you contact the science fiction community and learn about clubs, fanzines and conventions? Nowadays SF has conquered the world and there are access points everywhere. Ah, it were different when I were a lad, when practically the only SF available was Wyndham and Asimov, when you could buy the Foundation trilogy for a farthing and still have change.

On the other hand, if SF fandom didn't exist someone would invent it. I and a few friends came pretty close in our last years at school in South Wales, embarrassingly long ago. With a little help from my father's office equipment we produced two duplicated issues of a proto-fanzine called Vole. All copies, I hope, have long since been burnt. It was full of dreadfully imitative stuff influenced by Private Eye (a lot), by this new TV series called Monty Python (a bit) and by the fact that we all thought it perfectly natural to read SF by the truckload.

In my case this was largely the fault of my favourite aunt, who to the horror of the family had introduced me to unheard-of exotica like mulligatawny soup and The Day of the Triffids. Bless her.

So when I went to Oxford for three years of failing to study physics, I was primed to seek out SF contacts. Sure enough, the crowded notice-board in my college (Brasenose) featured the cover of an obviously SF publication called Sfinx – the university SF group's fiction magazine. Its cover cartoon, an extremely silly alien sphinx with one eye and tendrils, leered at me invitingly. You could tell the publishers had cosmic minds, by their total failure to provide a price or address. But I tracked them down anyway.

Although the Oxford University SF Group wasn't exactly British fandom in all its many-splendoured sleaziness, there were tendrils of contact. The OUSFG library contained SF fanzines, mostly incomprehensible but including the SF Foundation's cunningly titled critical mag Foundation, in the cheerful early days before it went all upmarket and academic. Little did I know it was my destiny to become a regular reviewer for Foundation ...

Besides young student hopefuls like myself, Allan Scott and Michael Scott Rohan, real authors from outside Oxford came to the Sfinx writers' meetings – people like Robert Holdstock who had actually sold stories and had a glittering nimbus of godhood. Luckily I arrived too late for the shattering OUSFG visit of James Blish, who'd given one issue of Sfinx his full attention as a major SF critic, dismissing cherished masterworks with phrases like "a tiny little undergraduate irony". The agony still lingered.

Thanks to OUSFG recommendations, I got to my first real SF convention in 1973: Novacon 3 in Birmingham. In that prehistoric era there were only two British cons each year, the traditional Eastercon and the newly founded Novacon, which still continues. Author/editor Kenneth Bulmer was guest of honour at Novacon 3 (he bought a Langford story next summer, my first professional sale), and even Christopher Priest was less terrifyingly intimidating than I'd feared. I gathered my courage and invited him to come and give a talk to OUSFG, which he did. Little did I know that years later I'd be a Novacon guest myself, not to mention giving talks to OUSFG....

After that first con, it was downhill all the way. I joined every future convention I could. I even joined the faltering British SF Association in time to receive one issue of its reviews magazine Vector (edited by Malcolm Edwards, now top man at Orion Books), before the BSFA staged one of its traditional collapses. (It's more stable nowadays, honest.) Helpless in the grip of my degraded addiction to the SF world, I began to publish fanzines.

Going to Novacon 3 seemed like the key point of contact at the time, but OUSFG was my gateway into SF's garden of forking paths, with the worldwide SF fan community awaiting me along so many of them. Good old Oxford. Little did I know that my future held such perils as (to date) 20 Hugo awards ...

Yes, it was more complicated in those dear dead days than just picking up SFX and skimming the small ads for the SF contact point of your choice. Tell that to today's youngsters and they won't believe you. Harrumph!

This column is for Louise Talbott, my favourite aunt, who long ago encouraged me to read SF and who died at age 60 in October 2001. Far too soon.