Whirlaway to Thrilling Wonder Stories

By Race Mathews

Race Mathews was, as this article shows, one of the founding members of the Melbourne Science Fiction Club, and since 1992 has returned to an active interest in SF. To the rest of the world, however, he is Director of the Institute of Politics and Public Affairs in the Graduate School of Government at Monash University. He was Victoria’s Minister for Community Services (1987-88) and Minister for the Arts and Minister for Police and Emergency Services (1982-87). He represented Oakleigh in the Victorian Legislative Assembly from 1979 to 1992, and Casey in the federal House of Representatives from 1972 to 1975, and was a Councillor for the City of Croydon from 1964 to 1966. He was Principal Private Secretary to the Leader of the Opposition in Victoria (1976-79) and federally (1967-72). His Australia’s First Fabians: Middle-Class Radicals, Labour Activists and the Early Labour Movement was published by Cambridge University Press in 1993, and he is currently writing about the co-operative movement in Britain, Canada and Spain

Race Mathews opened each of the 1975 and 1985 Worldcons, both held in Melbourne.

This article was re-printed from Bruce Gillespie’s fanzine, Metaphysical Review. It was first written as a paper to be presented at Nova Mob.

Due to the size of the article, it has been split into several sections. Fortunately Race had already divided the article into several discrete sections.

Part 1: First Encounters

Any account of the origins of the Melbourne Science Fiction Group, which later became the Melbourne Science Fiction Club, must in the nature of things be as much about biography as history. In order to understand how the MSFG (Melbourne Science Fiction Group) was established, it is necessary also to understand how in the first place the Group’s founders acquired tastes for science fiction which were tantamount to an addiction, and what it was that led them on further to the point where an organisation was required. In as much as what follows sets out the development of my own reading habits to the point of my discovery of science fiction and membership of the MSFG, it is offered as a paradigm from which the experiences of others may differ in detail, but which in a broad sense reflects the group as a whole.

By definition, there are as many accounts of first encounters with science fiction as there are readers of science fiction. The English novelist Kingsley Amis has described how, at the age of twelve or so, he discovered science fiction while rummaging through a display bin in a neighbourhood Woolworth’s store. The bin was labelled Yank Magazines: Interesting Reading. Frederik Pohl – a prominent American science fiction writer – has described coming across his first copy of Science Wonder Stories Quarterly when he was nine. Predictably, a scaly green monster dominated its cover. As Pohl recalls, I opened it up. The irremediable virus entered my veins.

There is a common thread that links these episodes and the pre-war science fiction experience more generally. Science fiction, once discovered, was abundant and readily accessible. As Pohl has pointed out: Magazines were a Depression business. If you couldn’t afford fifty cents to take the family to the movies, you could probably scrape up a dime or twenty cents to buy a magazine, and then pass the magazine back and forth to multiply the investment. For Amis, in Britain, the price would have been even lower. The Yank Magazines from his Woolworth’s bin would almost certainly have been unsold copies returned to the publishers from news-stands across America. `Returns’ were shipped out of the country by weight to England and Australia, and resold by department stores at a price marginally higher than their value as scrap paper.

A further common thread exists in the relative ease with which pre-war science fiction readers were able to make contact with one another. Pohl belonged in quick succession to the Brooklyn Science Fiction League, the East New York Science Fiction League, the Independent League, the International Cosmos Fiction Club and the Futurians. To quote him for the last time: We changed clubs the way Detroit changes tail fins, every year had a new one and last year’s was junk. In the unlikely event that Kingsley Amis had wanted to join a fan club, the choice open to him in pre-war Britain would have included various chapters of Hugo Gernsback’s Science Fiction Association and the British Interplanetary Society. Pre-war Australian readers had a Futurian Society of Melbourne and a Futurian Society of Sydney.

The situation in immediately postwar Melbourne was different. There is a passage in Arthur Clarke’s short story The Sentinel which, even today, those of us who were growing up at the time cannot read without emotion. Clarke wrote:

Nearly a hundred thousand million stars are turning in the circle of the Milky Way, and long ago races in the worlds of other suns must have scaled and passed the heights that we have reached. Think of such civilisations, far back in time against the fading afterglow of Creation, masters of a universe so young that life as yet had come to only a handful of worlds. Theirs must have been a loneliness we cannot imagine, the loneliness of gods looking out across infinity and finding none to share their thoughts.

Science fiction seemed to us in Melbourne in the late nineteen-forties and early nineteen-fifties to be truly a universe so young that life as yet had come to only a few worlds. Being a science fiction fan at the time was still mostly a solitary pursuit, involving something akin truly to the loneliness of gods looking out across infinity and finding none to share their thoughts. Books and magazines were few and far between. Those which turned up through painstaking searching and scrounging had to be savoured, eked out and repeatedly re-read. Often a point was reached where a favourite story was known virtually by heart. We had reason to understand better than most the much-quoted paraphrase of a famous 1949 Astounding Science Fiction punchline:

It is a proud and lonely thing to be a fan.

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