The Ackermansion Is Empty

Forrest J Ackerman died in December at the ripe age of 92, after enjoying the supreme pleasure of reading some of his own obituaries. He'd been ailing with congestive heart failure: someone jumped the gun and announced his death a month in advance. Forry – as everyone called him – was one of SF's greatest self-publicising showmen, and appreciated the extra attention.

He was big in fanzines in the 1930s-1940s, and became known as Mr Science Fiction. He never tired of bragging that he won the first ever Hugo Award, as "#1 Fan Personality" in 1953. All right, the presentation always starts with minor Hugos and works up to the biggie for best novel, but Forry undeniably came first.

Another record he claimed was for the shortest ever SF story, titled "Cosmic Report Card: Earth" and consisting of one letter, the sixth in the alphabet. I'm carefully not quoting it because, to prevent imitation, Forry warned that he'd copyrighted every possible single-letter story.

Wearing various hats he was a literary agent, an anthology editor, a promoter of Esperanto and nudism, and a fanatical collector of SF – especially movie – memorabilia. In 1958 he began a 25-year stint editing his magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland. This lovingly anatomised the best and worst of creature features, with a riot of Ackerman puns. In a Bela Lugosi profile, you knew with ghastly inevitability that the horror star would be "the principal stake-holder in the First International Blood Bank of Transylvania", with his favourite meal given as Hungarian Ghoulash.

Forry was a man of many pseudonyms. Dr Acula was an obvious choice for essays on horror flicks, but the really cheeky one was Hubert George Wells. H G Wells's middle name was George but his first was Herbert.

I first met Forry in the 1970s, during one of his many UK visits (usually to attend conventions). Characteristically, he'd stuffed his luggage with US space-programme commemorative stamps, and handed out sheets to young fans. At one gathering he bewailed the responsibility of maintaining the SF collection that filled his huge house, the Ackermansion. "Whenever I gave a party, there would always be something missing from the Collection afterwards." Pause. "Of course there were some books I wished people would take away, but no-one ever touched them ..."

"Ah," I said intelligently, "Perry Rhodan novels." This awful German SF series was currently being translated into English by (as I suddenly remembered) Forry's wife Wendayne. Who was sitting next to him, and gave me a pained look. Langford, the diplomat.

Some of his fanzines needed translation for non-initiates. He favoured futuristic spelling and would sign himself 4E (Forry) or 4SJ (Forrest J). The 1944 Fancyclopedia noted his obsessions like "simplifyd spelng, scientificombinations, non-stoparagraphing" and worse. This surely influenced Alfred Bester, whose The Demolished Man won the first novel Hugo in 1953 and features condensed future surnames: @kins, 1/4maine and Wyg& (Atkins, Quartermaine, Wygand). Very Ackermanesque.

Though he loved to wangle walk-on parts in movies, one literary appearance might have worried a lesser man: Forrest J Ackerman is a major character in Philip José Farmer's utterly disgusting SF porno novel Blown. ("Geeze!" he says as the SF background unfolds, "This is just like Gernsback!") But Forry didn't mind. To him, any publicity was great publicity.

He set his mark permanently on the SF genre in 1954 by inventing the shorthand "sci-fi". I'm not sure when he first used this in print, but my spies traced an early appearance in his film column for the British magazine Nebula in 1955: "Something new has been added on the scientifilm scene: they're actually making sci-fi films in quantity ..." Poor Forry didn't know that a million journalists would turn "sci-fi" into a dismissive and patronising term. Look on the bright side, though. At least "scientifilm" didn't catch on.

Strangely enough, the Oxford English Dictionary challenged his 1954 coinage of "sci-fi". According to their researchers, Robert A Heinlein used the term when writing to his agent in 1949; this letter was published, much later, in Grumbles from the Grave (1989). But wait a minute: Heinlein's carbon copies can be consulted at ... and in fact that letter was wrongly transcribed. It says "sci-fic", a common fan abbreviation in the later 1940s. Forry Ackerman was first after all – just as he was with the Hugo.

David Langford regrets that the Ackerman Collection was mostly sold off in 2002 to pay medical bills.