Fanzines – Creative Genius at the Grass Roots (Part One)

I’ve always loved fanzines. I have, for some reason, an extremely strong affinity with fanzines and small press in general, a powerful connection that I’ve never felt even with the best “pro” mags. It’s almost a religious thing with me. I get a bigger kick out of reading a tatty old A5 black & white fanzine, produced on an ancient dot matrix printer, than I do from 99.9% of professional publications, which are supposed to be “superior” in every way, both visually and production-wise, and in the quality of writers and articles. So why do fanzines fascinate me so much?

Probably the main reason that I love fanzines is that, unlike the glossy, expensive newsstand mags, ANY one of us can produce a fanzine, if we put our minds to it. All you need is a computer and a cheap DTP program (or the old way, with a typewriter, scissors, glue and a photocopier). We can all get in on the act, if we’re determined enough. If you’ve got even a modicum of talent, and also the dedication needed to sacrifice the huge amount of time and effort required, virtually anybody can cobble together a fanzine.

But don’t forget the financial outlay on print fanzines (online zines are a lot less expensive to produce) and thick skins needed to protect you against the barrage of criticism that you’ll inevitably get from many quarters, should you publish anything controversial. Fanzine readers are extremely passionate about their little obsessions, and can be very critical and outspoken on matters that get their gander up. The flip side of that coin is that they can also be fanatical supporters of their favourite zines.

At their best, fanzines contain the type of raw, undiluted genius that you’d rarely find in commercial magazines. Fanzine editors and writers don’t have to abide by the same kind of rules as the pro publications, as they aren’t constrained by having to please a certain audience or market. The authors can write pretty much whatever they like. Fanzines can publish virtually ANYTHING, including stuff that you’d never see in mainstream mags. They can be rude and irreverent, as they don’t have to worry about offending publishers or readers. They can publish wacky, off-beat material, gems that pro magazines would never touch with a long pole. And they also contain the real, personal thoughts and opinions of the editors and contributors, who would be a lot more restrained if submitting an article to a “pro” magazine.

There are fanzines covering almost every conceivable topic. There are zines devoted to telefantasy, cult television and sci-fi cinema, Science Fiction in books, comics, music, sport, history, poetry, zines for amateur dramatic societies, club news and activities, indeed pretty much ANY subject you care to mention, or even a mix of many of the above. My favourites have always been the fanzines based on my favourite sci-fi television series, SF literature, and music. Doctor Who fanzines make up a considerable proportion of my large fanzine collection, and are probably my favourites of them all. Some of these are truly amazing publications.

Commercial publications are created by a nebulous elite, away “up there” in their ivory towers, far removed from we mere mortals. Fanzines are created by “one of us” (in most cases more than one) down here on Planet Earth, your average (although talented) “Joe Bloggs”, who wants to let his frustrated “inner writer” or editor out into the world at large. Any of us can potentially make a zine, focused on ANY subject, or we can at the very least contribute to a zine created by someone else. Very few of us would ever have any chance of being published in a pro magazine. As far as I’m concerned, this is one of the most exciting and attractive things about fanzines. It’s self-publishing BY the fans, FOR the fans.

I’d be the first to concede that the visual quality and production values in pro magazines are usually superior (after all, they DO have a much larger budget), although some of the higher-end fanzine and semi-prozine publications are just as slick as their pro counterparts. With a few notable exceptions, the classic fanzines of yesteryear were usually cheap ‘n’ cheerful A5 “cut ‘n’ paste” publications, mass-produced on photocopiers. But once computers, DTP software and fancy inkjet and laser printers became cheaper and more accessible for Joe Public (from about the late-1980s onwards), even low-end fanzine production took a quantum leap forwards in quality.

Compare the average A5 or A4 home-produced fanzine from the 1970s or early-to-mid 1980s with one produced today. At least in the area of production quality and visuals, there’s no comparison, with the exception of the occasional modern fanzine produced the old-fashioned way, to intentionally give it that retro feel, most often as a tribute to the classic zines. The one thing all the best fanzines over the years have had in common is in the single most important area, that of the content, which has remained consistently excellent.

I’d argue strongly with any assertion that pro magazines attract higher quality articles, writers and artwork. Some of the best articles I’ve ever read came out of fanzines, and some of the art I’ve seen in them over the years has also been top class, definitely pro quality. Many of the top “fan” writers are at least as good as their pro competitors, in some cases better. Being a long-time fan of a certain television show often means that they have a much more in-depth knowledge about their chosen subject than a pro writer, who has no personal interest in the topic in question, but has merely researched it for the purpose of writing an article. The quality of zines can admittedly vary drastically, from dire to sublime, but I’ve read fiction and articles in fanzines that beat seven shades of crap out of ANYTHING I’ve ever read in “pro” mags.

The people producing fanzines do it “for the sheer love of it”, not for money. There’s precious little of that available in publishing fanzines, as the vast majority of them barely recoup their costs at the best of times. And this “doing it for the sheer love of it” really shines through in the writing. I’ve read so many articles in pro magazines that were competent enough but obviously done just “by the numbers”, to earn a pay-packet. In comparison, a good fanzine article is a breath of fresh air, a jolt of high-octane enthusiasm and fanboy expertise, done simply for the sheer, obsessive love of the subject.

This goes much of the way towards explaining why I’d read articles in fanzines that are based on topics which wouldn’t interest me in the least if they were to appear in a commercial publication. Completely different sets of expectations and values for small press vs commercial press, I know. But both play by different rules, and are judged accordingly (at least by me).

Many of the “greats” of the past, as well as the current generation of pro writers and artists in SF and comics, started out originally in fanzines. There they honed their skills and gained experience, until their talents were eventually recognized and they were able to move on and work on pro publications. Unfortunately many others, just as talented, never make it into the pro field, and continue working for fanzines until they either give up altogether or just fade away, and return to having a Real Life, working, paying the bills and raising kids. But their legacy and talent lives on in the existing small print runs of the zines they’ve worked on over the years.

Fanzines, by their non-commercial nature and miniscule print runs are as rare as hen’s teeth, especially once they go out of print. They can be almost impossible to find. I know, because I’ve been looking for certain classic zines for years now without ever having any success. It’s just a matter of sheer luck if these zines turn up on Ebay. Many have disappeared into the mists of time, forgotten by all except for the tiny audience who had the pleasure of reading them. That, in my opinion, is a tragic loss. These gems are in dire need of rediscovery and preservation, which is why I’m a rabid supporter of any initiative to preserve small press publications of all kinds.

To Be Continued…

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A Couple of Classic Alternate History Stories

I’ve recently come upon an unusual (but nice) little paperback anthology of alternate history stories, OTHER EARTHS edited by Nick Gevers and Jay Lake. I’ll talk more about that one at a later date.

Strangely enough (well, maybe not so much for me), finding this anthology started me on a major alternate history trip, sending me off on an expedition to dig out of the vaults some of the best examples of classic AH in my admittedly large collection of SF books. I’ve just finished re-reading two of my favourite classic alternate histories, and these two stories are a perfect example of just how good AH can be.

The first is the magnificent novelette, He Walked Around the Horses, written by one of my favourite-ever SF authors, H. Beam Piper. The story was first published in the April 1948 edition of ASTOUNDING SCIENCE FICTION, but I first read it back in 1982-1983, in the anthology THE GOLDEN AGE OF SCIENCE FICTION, edited by Kingsley Amis, which is also where I’ve just finished re-reading it. It is set during the Napoleonic War, when a British ambassador to her European allies takes a step sideways into an alternate reality where Napoleon never made it big, there is no war, and the political and military alliances in Europe are quite different from those in “our” world. This world’s alternate version of the protagonist leads a different life altogether, and, understandably, the authorities in this alternate reality consider “our” protagonist to be some crazy guy, so he’s locked up.

The second story is the excellent novella The Summer Isles, written by one of the best SF authors in the UK, Iain R. MacLeod. I first read this little gem back in the October/November 1998 edition of ASIMOV’S SCIENCE FICTION MAGAZINE, and I’ve just re-read it in MacLeod’s excellent short story collection, BREATHMOSS AND OTHER EXHALATIONS (2004). This is a sensitive tale of a forbidden homosexual relationship, set against a background of fear, paranoia and deadly political skullduggery. It takes place in an alternate 1930s Britain, in a reality in which the Allies lost in World War I, and the Germans were obviously victorious. In this reality, it is, ironically, Britain which has become the repressed fascist dictatorship, and not Germany.

Both stories are exquisitely written, and examples of the best of the genre. They’re the sort of story you can show to even mainstream literary snobs without fear of them ridiculing you, and they are also the type of story that the pretentious “mainstream literary wannabies” within SF itself can’t even begin to criticize. I don’t believe in any of the elitist bullshit that these people hold to – a good story is a good story, irrespective of genre. And keep in mind that SF isn’t merely a “genre”, it’s a “state of mind”, a meta-genre, encompassing many other sub-genres. Alternate histories represent one of the many “respectable” faces of SF, a sub-genre with (in the vast majority of cases) no spaceships, laser guns or BEMs, just mankind and the “human condition”, and a lot of history, mixed with a big dollop of “What If?” that really gets the speculation flowing. And one of the main fundamental pillars of SF has always been “What If?”

In my “mundane”/non-SF persona, I’m an historian. I’ve always been fascinated by history, its mechanics, and its possibilities, its futures. And I’ve also always loved SF. So mixing the two in the shape of alternate histories was always going to be a winner in my book. The two stories above are among my favourites, but there are so many other great alternate histories out there that I can’t even begin to list them all. Go track them down, take your pick of a few of the recommended ones, and read some of the best stories that SF has to offer.