Tales of a Stranger

by Russell Chauvenet

There’s nothing quite like being mainstreamed into an alien society to make an individual feel like a Stranger. The circumstance that I became deaf at the age of 10 and spent 5 years in schools for the deaf in no way prepared me for leaving that behind and living at school and at home in worlds where I never encountered anyone who was also deaf. It was partly this feeling of strangeness that warmed my heart to science fiction, crude though some of the stories then printed may have been. But best of all was the discovery that there were other science fiction fans who were ready to be friends with Tweel, and therefore not at all put out by meeting Russ Chauvenet. (Anyone not remembering Tweel will please write an essay on the works of Stanley G. Weinbaum and bring it to the next convention.)

I particularly warmed to my friendship with Robert Swisher, Art Widner, and Earl Singleton, people whose presence made me feel at ease and whose conversation inspired and interested me. Without science fiction, we would not have met. It was only natural that after some little passage of time we should have formed a club of our own. Laurence Manning was neither the first nor the last author to use the device of a club where men gathered and told tall tales to each other. (Younger people may be aware that Arthur Clarke did the same in ‘Tales of the White Hart.’) We took the name of our club from Manning, and met for the first time at my parents’ home in Cambridge, Mass., in February 1940, altho the genesis of the club had been laid in 1939 and it is not altogether wrong to consider this a 50th anniversary in 1989.

Due to another strange circumstance, my family moved back to Virginia in the spring of 1940, causing my membership and participation in the Stranger Club to become singularly brief. At my advanced age, I do not have the slightest recollection of anything that transpired at any Stranger Club meeting. What remains vivid is my enormous admiration for Bob Swisher’s work in publishing checklists of then-current fanzines, which were vigorously numerous even in those remote times ‘before the war.’ His activities kept me aware of the publications of many fans who have since become legendary in the annals of science fiction fandom: besides the members of the Stranger Club and of the Fantasy Amateur Press Association, I came into varying degrees of contact with such great ones as Bob Tucker, Larry Farsaci, Forrest J Ackerman, F. Towner Laney, Christopher Samuel Youd, Cyril Kornbluth, and numerous others.

One thing I disapproved of in the early days of fandom was the bickering and even hostile attitude of some fans for others. In such squabbles I was never interested, then or now, and if I ever had any enemies I remained delightfully ignorant of the matter. I disliked certain published statements of a minority, but I never met a fan I didn’t like (Thank you, Will Rogers).

My contributions to the growth and well-being of fandom in general were relatively modest. As first President of the National Fantasy Fan Federation (N3F) I helped to get its house organ, Bonfire, going, and aided in the organization of such activities as the Welcoming Committee. Indeed, I was mightily surprised in the early 1980s to receive a friendly letter from that same Welcom, encouraging me to join sf fandom. It may have been the closest I ever came to being born again.

I retained my FAPA membership until after World War II, when added responsibilities (I went back to graduate school, after having done my bit in the synthetic rubber business during the war years) led me to resign.

Later I was encouraged to return to FAPA in the 1960s and found the renewed contacts with old friends pleasant. My increasing involvement with sailing and chess led to another hiatus, but I re-entered FAPA for the third and final time late in the 1970s and am enjoying my membership a good deal, especially since I retired from a long career as a computer programmer in 1986.

We might ask, has my membership in FAPA been of any significance, and get the honest answer ‘Of course not!’ In the old days I was one of a small group of FAPA members who called ourselves ‘The Brain Trust,’ mainly because we could write coherent sentences and use more logic than emotions in our continual discussions of subjects of interest to us, including science fiction, but from an early time broadening out to any topic of personal interest to any member. If you are not a member of an amateur press association, a quick recap might help you understand the usual set-up. By and large a member remains in good standing by paying his dues and contributing writings or art to his own or other fanzines. At periodic intervals members send copies of their latest fanzine to the official editor, who collates the contributions and mails out a bundle to each member. In the FAPA you may suppose that perhaps as many as half of the membership will get around to reading what you have had to say, and of these, a fourth will have something interesting to say about your contribution. Even if your fanzine seemingly falls unnoticed into a black hole, it is likely that it was indeed read and enjoyed by at least a few. (‘Keep the faith, FAPA fans!’). There may even be a belated comment from England or Australia some day; it is a world-wide organization that has endured longer than The Stranger Club!

It is an added feature that sometimes the WorldCon takes place in an overseas country, and there you might meet a fellow member of your amateur press association whom you had previously known only via the mailings. It remains as true now as in the old days, that the APAs are for fanzine publishers, and also, for the most part, those who like to read science fiction. They are emphatically not for such persons as the ‘student’ who signed up for a science fiction course, only to complain ‘Hey! Do you mean I gotta read books? I thought all we had to do was watch Star Trek reruns!’ The changes that have occurred in the writing and publication of science fiction form an interesting story, which has been explored in detail by Sam Moskowitz and others whose erudition and appetite for work and analysis I can only admire from a respectful distance. I started out enjoying Edgar Rice Burroughs’ various simply structured yarns, content that Tarzan and John Carter and the other good guys would always come out on top. These tales were superseded in my affection by the equally predictable stories of E.E. Smith, because good old Doc Smith painted vividly on a much broader canvas. Think of it! Seaton and Crane built the ‘Skylark of Space’ in Crane’s machine-shop factory, powered her with a conveniently discovered isotope of copper which disintegrated under control to yield almost any desired amount of power, and took her out on a trial run, around the moon and back, in a couple of hours, without involving Houston or indeed anyone else in the operation. Science has a way to go to equal that one.

Then along came more authors with more interesting ideas, such as Stanley Weinbaum, L. Sprague de Camp, Theodore Sturgeon, James Blish, A.E. van Vogt, and ‘Don A. Stuart,’ whose stories, written by John W. Campbell, I admired so much more than the vast epics he published under his own name. I also became acquainted with English authors and admired the books of S. Fowler Wright and Olaf Stapledon.

During subsequent years I have liked the writers who carry on in more or less the old style, and write stories that describe things I can understand and have a strong grasp on my imagination in their feel for some aspects of the immensity of the universe. Isaac Asimov, Robert Silverberg, Arthur Clarke, James Blish, Poul Anderson, Jack Chalker, James Hogan, and numerous others have written books which I have enjoyed reading. At the same time, other authors have experimented with different techniques and have written stories whose entertainment value is offset by a certain amount of confusion in my mind as I try to keep track of what is going on. Roger Zelazny and Philip K. Dick are the most prominent examples that come to mind. This latter point is not too different from my reactions to the works of ‘modern’ artists, some of whom have produced work that seems wonderful to me, but at the expense of putting out lots of other stuff which looks like rubbish (even if the fault is in the eye of the beholder).

Fantasy and science fiction have always been linked, like partners in a marriage who vary between bliss and bickering. In recent years there has been a tendency for fantasy to gain at the expense of science fiction; I would prefer that the two remain ‘first among equals,’ for I have a good deal of affection for certain marvelous fantasies, beginning with Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice’ books and continuing through Tolkien’s ‘Middle-Earth,’ not forgetting E.R. Eddison’s majestic Zimiamvian trilogy and William Morris’ ‘The Well at the World’s End,’ as well as many better known works. But of late, sword and sorcery seems to have been a bit overdone. Luckily no law compels one to read another’s book, and I am also indebted to Milton Stevens (of FAPA) for the observation: ‘With the number of people writing sf and fantasy these days, you can easily lose track of a couple of hundred of them without really noticing it.’

In one way or another I look forward to reading more stories as enjoyable as those that have come before and meeting new fans who are (almost) as interesting as my old friends whom I have known since Stranger Club days. And I still like to answer that trite question ‘How are you?’ with the reply ‘Cheerful.’ It costs no more.