Friday, July 04, 2008

Jack Speer and "The Atheism Issue"

I was sorry to hear of the death of science-fiction fan Jack Speer. I commend to everyone his pioneering history of fandom, Up To Now, written for distribution at the first World Science Fiction Convention in July 1939, when the historian himself was all of 18. (That Worldcon concluded 69 years ago today, in fact.) Up To Now is a 35-page PDF at the invaluable Speer's chapter headings include:

  • The First Staple War.
  • The Decline and Fall of the Era.
  • The Nature of Wollheim’s Dictatorship.
  • The Crucial Period.
  • The Undertow.
  • The Situation in the West.
  • The Order Begins to Crumble.
  • The Decline and Fall of Wollheim.

    Some indication of the pacing can be gleaned from the fact that "The First Months of 1938" is only the 17th of 28 chapters listed in the table of contents.

    Today I'm most interested in the chapter titled "The Atheism Issue," which I briefly excerpt here:
    When the November, 1937, Cosmic Tales carried, as what was to be the last of [Donald J.] Wollheim’s Phantaflexion columns, an article later reprinted in the first Science Fiction Advance as “Science Fiction and Religion,” it seemed that another bombshell had been dropped into fandom from the hand of the genial W. Some months later appeared “Anent Atheism and Stf” in Imagination!, which debated the possibly question-begging proposition that scientifictionists were scientifictionists because they were atheists, rather than atheists because they were scientifictionists,as Wollheim argued. ... It became customary for new correspondents to inquire each others’ religious stands, or to state them without inquiry, as a natural part of getting acquainted. ...

    Curiously, it never became a red-hot issue. ... the general sentiment seemed to be to avoid religious controversies before fandom as a whole, as being unpleasant and getting nowhere ...

    But perhaps the most important reason for the flat-falling of the atheism issue was lack of interest—lack of opposition! ... The only prominent fans known to acknowledge church beliefs were Catholic Baltadonis and Episcopalian McPhail, tho doubtless there were others. When the IPO got around to putting the question, agnosticism and kindred showed a definite, tho not overwhelming majority, with many
    of those on the other side of the line doubtful, tongue-in-cheek, or indifferent.

    In defense of religion little showed up. ...

    There wasn’t enough opposition to give any thrill from attacking the churchmen. So atheism was taken pretty much for granted, and fandom rocketed merrily on its way. But there is no guarantee that the controversy may not blaze forth again.
    No, indeed -- though, in my experience, atheism is still taken pretty much for granted, in science-fiction circles. When I recently told a group of sf cronies, for example, about a Potlatch panel titled "Coming Out as Atheist," I got in return a half-dozen confused expressions. Many atheists in the field can't imagine the need to "come out" as atheist, since that's the default expectation -- and certainly can't imagine the need to defend the position, or risk suffering hardship for publicly taking it.

    Speaking of the first Worldcon, check out the contemporary coverage in Time magazine, which notes that the sf magazines of 1939 average 150,000 readers apiece and pay 1 cent to 4 cents a word.

    Also, Speer's other major fannish writing project, the 1944 Fancyclopedia slang dictionary, is online here.
  • 1 comment:

    Anonymous said...

    Samuel Skinner
    There are a bunch of reasons, but from a practical perspective, the reason is because religion is either shown right, takes a new form or is eliminated.

    Shown right tends to be the most boring- since many religions end with the end of the world, no good stories. Not to mention they still have the problems they previously did.

    New form happens alot. Dune and hyperion spring to mind immediately.

    Eliminated may be to extreme a word, but for alot of fiction it is simply a label applied to charcters- if it exists at all. My favorite for this is Babelyon V, particularly after they find out the religions were crafted by the Vorlons and continue following them.

    Basically, God makes for a very bad character to add to a story. He is worse then Mary Sues. Sues, although annoying can die AND they help others- God, can't do either of those.