December Belongs To Cthulhu

H. P. Lovecraft, Founding Father of SF Fandom

Before the internet, before BBSes and Fidonet and Usenet and LiveJournal and blogs and Facebook and Twitter, before the World Wide Web and hot-and-cold-online-everything, science fiction fandom had a long-lived, robust, well-debugged technology of social networking and virtual community. That technology, which flourished in fandom from the 1940s through the 1980s, was the amateur press association, commonly abbreviated APA. And they got it from H. P. Lovecraft.

A typical APA has thirty or forty members, each of whom self-publishes a small periodical for the others to read. Rather than everyone mailing their zines to everyone else, each member prints enough copies for the whole group and ships them to a designated officer of the group, who then, at periodic intervals, collates and redistributes identical collections of all the latest publications to every member of the group. In order to remain manageable, most APAs have a membership cap; should more people wish to participate, a waiting list is established. Turnover happens because all members are required to publish a certain amount of material within a given time period; those who fail to do so are dropped from the rolls and, if a waiting list exists, replaced by the seniormost person on that list.

Fandom’s first APA was FAPA, the Fantasy Amateur Press Association, founded in 1937 by Donald A. Wollheim (later the “DAW” of DAW Books) and John Michel; it still exists today. By the early 1940s, FAPA membership was sufficiently in demand that a waiting list was established. By the 1960s, fans routinely waited years to be admitted to the organization. Following FAPA, other fandom-oriented APAs arose—VAPA, the Vanguard Amateur Press Association, rooted in the political and intellectual ferment of New York City’s Futurians; SAPS, the ironically-acronymed Spectator Amateur Press Society; the UK-based OMPA, or Off-trail Magazine Publishers Association. In subsequent years, APAs were founded based around niche fannish interests—CAPA-Alpha for comics fans, Alarums and Excursions for RPG fanciers, A Woman’s Apa for discussions of feminism and SF. Others were specifically limited to particular age demographics—Apa-45, founded in the late 1960s, was for SF fans born after 1945; some years later saw the flourishing of Apa-50.[1] Still other apas were oriented toward the fans in a particular city or region, like Minneapa for fans in the Twin Cities, and the astonishing APA-L, collated weekly at the clubhouse of the Los Angeles Science Fantasty Society. (An important aspect of these locally-based groups was that they often included fans who didn’t happen to live in those APAs’ nominal locality, thus encouraging and maintaining ongoing fannish bonds across great distances.) By the late 1970s it was plausibly estimated that over a thousand APAs of one sort or another were ongoing in the English-speaking fannish world.

Early on, many of the first members of FAPA appear to have regarded the organization as a simple distribution hack, an efficient method of distributing one’s already-ongoing fanzine to a bunch of the core fans you were planning to mail it to anyway. This model lasted approximately five minutes. Within just a few distribution cycles, most FAPA members were instead publishing smaller, more streamlined zines meant for other FAPA members only, and the content of these zines, instead of consisting of the full formal apparatus of editorials and articles and colophons and lettercolumns, became a much more informal thing, typically entailing some loose personal natter and then a lot of “mailing comments,” which is to say, remarks directed to the content of other members’ zines in the previous mailing. In fact, as fannish APAs developed, the tendency was for “mailing comments”—which is to say, ongoing conversation—to become the dominant content. This is why some of us whose fannish memories extend back to this era now refer to APAs as the “Very Slow Internet.” (Indeed, as many people have pointed out, quite a few of the abbreviations and slang terms of early Internet discourse came from SF fandom, particularly from the fannish APAs.) In effect, APAs were a means of creating virtual community at a distance by leveraging the most powerful global network then available to fans: the postal system.

But who invented the APA? Not science-fiction fandom, as it turns out. The original APAs in the modern sense emerged in the late 19th century, as letterpresses became inexpensive and compact enough for middle-class hobbyists to own and operate them. NAPA, the National Amateur Press Association, was founded in 1876; the second such group, UAPA, the United Amateur Press Association, began in 1895, and was dominated by a group of teenagers impatient with what they considered the stuffiness of NAPA.[2] The content of these early APAs was often quite formal by the standards of the later SF-oriented groups—poetry, history, literary essays, and a considerable emphasis on elegant typesetting and printing.[3]

In 1914, Argosy magazine published a stinging letter from a 24-year-old named Howard Phillips Lovecraft, criticizing a story by one of the magazine’s regular writers. The lettercolumn debate that followed caused the then-president of UAPA to invite Lovecraft to join that organization—which appears to have been a life-changing event for the young HPL, converting him from a morbid recluse into a dynamo of literary and social activity.[4]

Lovecraft lived only to 1937. But the personal correspondence important to us here took place in the mid-1930s, with the aforementioned Donald A. Wollheim. Barely in his twenties, Wollheim was busily inventing a great deal of what became SF fandom. He was an early member of Hugo Gernsback’s Science Fiction League and had the early distinction of being expelled from it as a “disruptive influence.” In 1936 he helped organize the meeting of New York and Philadelphia-area fans from which the modern Philcon claims descent. He was one of the founders of the Futurians, the New York-centered group of fans and professionals that at various times included Frederik Pohl, Isaac Asimov, Judith Merril, Damon Knight, James Blish, and many others. Along with several fellow Futurians he was banned from the first World Science Fiction Convention in 1939. (SF fan politics in the 1930s was a bare-knuckled game.) But perhaps his most important role in the development of modern fan culture was as the transmitter of the APA meme from H. P. Lovecraft into the then-nascent mimeo-stained science-fiction-fanzine world. From there the APA idea flowered into a thousand different forms, and most importantly, helped foster a set of interlinked virtual communities worldwide that were, by the late 1970s, as ready for the social potential of the Internet as it was possible for pre-Internet people to be.

Due disclosure: Remember those local-fandom-oriented APAs I mentioned? I founded one of them, AZAPA, for Arizona fans and their friends, in 1975, just before moving to Toronto, where my family was relocating. (I was sixteen.) I remained a member of AZAPA—after all, my first set of fannish friends and acquaintances were all there—and in early 1976, the group was joined by a young and intelligent woman named Teresa Nielsen. (As she has remarked in later years, “When I first met Patrick, he was 8 ½-by-11-inch brown twiltone mimeo paper.”) Many events ensued; we were married in 1979. In later years we’ve watched in amusement as the mainstream media grapples over and over again with the mind-bending concept of people forming actual relationships with one another due to having met on…[a BBS! | Usenet! | the Well! | Compuserve! | AOL! | Livejournal! | Some blog somewhere! | Facebook! | Twitter! | Whatever’s next!]. How crazy is that? Can you imagine? We can imagine.


[1] Hello, Brett Cox.

[2] A social pattern familiar to SF fans.

[3] Although the record suggests that these pre-fandom APAns were not necessarily as formal as they have often been portrayed.

[4] Another social pattern well-documented by later SF fans.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden is a senior editor and the manager of science fiction at Tor Books, and the fiction editor of  He has been active in SF fandom since plastic dinosaurs ruled the earth.


Subscribe to this thread