All Our Yesterdays: An Informal History
of Science Fiction Fandom in the 1940s
By Harry Warner, Jr
NESFA Press, 2004
Dear lord, where to start? Start with a bold claim: if you want to understand science fiction, read this book—this strange, ungainly, somewhat dated book. Follow with another claim: if you start reading All Our Yesterdays, you’ll find it hypnotic. And close this introduction with a third claim: if you’re like me, you’ll shudder at some of what you see in the pages of this book, in part because you recognize yourself, perhaps unwillingly.
To back up and provide some context for these peculiar claims, and this peculiar book, All Our Yesterdays was republished in 2004 by NESFA Press. NESFA is the New England Science Fiction Association, a science fiction club that’s been around since the 1960s; NESFA runs Boskone, a regional con centered in Boston, and their press publishes works honoring guests of honor at Boskone (and some other cons) and science fiction reference works, and reprints classic science fiction. All Our Yesterdays falls into these last two categories. It was written by Harry Warner, Jr., a longtime fan who lived through the period he wrote about, and who, unfortunately, passed away in 2003.
All Our Yesterdays was originally published in 1969, which prompts the question, why bother reviewing it now? Several reasons: First, as Warner’s death signifies, those few still alive who lived through those days are leaving us, and when they do, books like this will be the only records of the time. And second, those years were decidedly formative. Isaac Asimov sold his first story in 1938. Heinlein’s first story was published in 1939. Damon Knight published his first story in 1941…you get the idea. These weren’t the very first years of science fiction, but they were fundamental, and the fans were a crucial part of that process. What’s more, many rising stars used fanzines as a place to practice their creative skills or hone their critical judgment; Warner describes the early activities of Bradbury, Bloch, and others during this period. As his book makes clear in meticulous detail, fandom really was a way of life at that time. Even the average science fiction reader was marked as distinct from the norm, and those who self-designated as fans were well beyond the pale, so much so that some period fans suggested that fans were a mutation in the human species.
Third, the time since those early years has allowed science fiction to deny, or at least ignore, its roots. Many of its awards and institutions are now hoary, and are as staidly dignified as contemporary churches. They are fully integrated into society, so that no one raises an eyebrow if you mention you attend, say, a Methodist church. Likewise, the sheer age of the Hugo (given for more than half a century) gives it respectability. Reading All Our Yesterdays takes us back to the early days, which is somewhat akin to stumbling onto a reality show based on the early church fathers, all living in the same house. Paul hit me! Augustine stole my socks! Seriously, dude, when are you going to copy Jesus’ speech for me?
All Our Yesterdays features relatively little violence, but it does display a good deal of great drama, and my suggested parallel with the early church fathers is not mine alone. Warner mentions that fandom was wracked by schisms and movements from its earliest days, and, later, compares one fan’s expose of Los Angeles area fandom to Saint Augustine’s Confessions. Warner is also kind enough to include a brief glossary of fan-specific terms which mark fandom as a distinct subculture.
All Our Yesterdays is an odd and uneven book. Warner is exceptionally informed about fandom. He took part in many of the period’s major events—cons, hoaxes, trips—and knew all the major players who led the events he wasn’t part of, such as Slan Shack, a house of fans in Michigan. He published a long-running fanzine, and read and collected hosts of others. There might have been others who knew that period’s fandom as well, but it would be difficult indeed to find someone who knew it better. On the other hand, Warner is not an academic historian. He makes no pretense of being an objective observer in the melee he describes—indeed, he mentions his part in various feuds, and claims responsibility for the decade’s cruelest hoax: creating a fictional prozine. (Since he describes another fan’s hoax of pretending to have committed suicide and convincing people he had died on the previous page, calling an imaginary magazine the cruelest hoax gives you some sense of fan values.) However, Warner is very honest without being brutal—he records events, and sometimes labels people, but does not intentionally insult them.
Sometimes, though, what Warner records is deliciously small. Debts of fifty cents are remembered, as are things like the time Bradbury scared a waitress, or the time Forrest J. Ackerman was given free cookies. More even than the affection with which these points are described, the very minutiae recorded indicate that fandom was not just a way of life, it fell somewhere between a family and a cult. Everyone had nicknames, and their interactions are charged with an intensity that Warner manages to evoke, if not fully explain; I suspect this really is one of those things that are impossible to explain to outsiders, or at least to those who lack parallel experiences. (I lived in a housing co-op for two years; it felt like home.)
In any family, church, or social structure, there is a constellation of relationships and often a hierarchy of power and influence. There are also boundaries by which one defines one as in or out of the group. Warner discusses the periodic need some fans felt to “gafia” (get away from it all), and the eventual return of some of them to “fanac” (fan activity). Events are described in which participants count the number of fans and mundanes present, and the tension between fandom and “prodom” is mentioned several times. If you want a two points that really underscore the vitality of fandom as a way of life, consider first that Warner can track when individual writers passed back and forth between the two camps, and second that he speculates in the section on Australian fandom on whether fandom can exist without prodom.
Of course, this leads to the question, what would they be fans OF, if not for professionally published science fiction? The answers are myriad: the future, alternatives, each other, fanzines, fiction distributed by mimeograph, etc. Confronting these many activities, which seemed self-generating and self-validating, it seems clear that not only was fanac like a religion, it was like the house church movement, or some strands of early Protestantism, in which families, individuals, or small informal groups splinter from larger, officially sanctioned groups precisely because of the intensity of their vision. These folks may have worn masks by Ray Harryhausen, the fan who would later become a major force in movies as a special-effects genius, but they were light-years from the folks who buy Vader masks off the shelf.
This was science fiction as the real religion. These were the folks who cared enough to create the first Hugos, and the true faithful the early giants were writing for. This is the primordial cultural soup from which science fiction sprang. A Wealth of Fable, the “sequel” to All Our Yesterdays, covered the 1950s, and well enough that it earned a Hugo in 1993 for best book related to science fiction. If you want to understand science fiction’s evolution, you’ll pick up one or both books. And if you’re like me, you’ll find some startling resemblances on unexpected branches of the family tree.