Peter Weston (1943 – 2017) was perhaps one of the most pre-eminent British science fiction fans of the post-war era. To a modern generation, that statement will not sound very much like praise, and indeed will attract little attention. That would be a shame. In a time when “science fiction fans” are identified mainly as consumers of product who are most likely to engage in costuming and queue up for the autographs of ‘B’ list actors from long-cancelled television shows, the fandom that Weston knew and helped create is an unrecognisable beast of a different stripe.
Pete Weston came from a time when science fiction was predominantly a print genre, and a written word print genre to boot. Science fiction fans came together to discuss their favourite literature, its ideas and its execution at a time long before book clubs and literary circles made this a fashionable activity. And it wasn’t an elitist grouping; sf fans were in ordinary jobs and professions, and Weston’s memoir illustrates this.
It is also an interesting portrait of Birmingham in the 1950s and 1960s. Having quite a long-lasting acquaintance with that city, I recognised many of the places Weston mentions. I also recognised many of the people, even though I only came into British fandom in the middle 1970s, about a third of the way into Chapter 19 (out of 20). I am not mentioned in this book, nor would I expect to be. I knew Peter Weston only tangentially, though I spoke to him at conventions and Birmingham Science Fiction Group (BSFG) meetings from time to time. In its day, the BSFG could attract major writers in the genre to speak – Brian Aldiss, Harry Harrison, Frederik Pohl and James Blish are just a few that come to mind, and there have been many others. That’s rather more difficult now, as publishers guard their writers’ publicity tours far more jealously; and ironically, as the genre has become more pervasive, the stature of individual writers has diminished. Also, the science fiction and fantasy genres are notable in that many of their key professional writers started out as fans, and indeed learnt a lot of their trade writing in fanzines. So in these pages you will meet the young Terry Pratchett, who was known as a fan long before he became a literary superstar.
Of Peter Weston the man, we learn a little. His involvement with the Young Conservatives came as something of a surprise to me, though in retrospect I suppose it shouldn’t have. And I found some of his accounts of fan feuds of the past a little partisan, and his position on his own role in some of these rather along the lines of not realising that not everyone shared Peter’s idea of what was funny, or witty. Many fans of Peter’s generation thought of themselves as slightly superior intellects, capable of entertaining vast, world-spanning concepts and sometimes being superior to non-fans, or ‘mundanes’ as some called them. (J.K. Rowling’s ‘muggles’ certainly had their progenitors here.) Sadly, many fans, whilst thinking of themselves as these great minds, actually proved themselves frequently not to be so, and Peter Weston was not immune to this minor delusion. But in the Great Scheme of Things, this is hardly a major crime.
The important thing about this book, no matter what you think of Peter Weston, is that he sat down and wrote it (in 2004). It only really covers the period up to the first “modern” British World SF Convention, Seacon ’79 at Brighton in 1979, which Weston chaired. His account of that convention and some of the issues encountered with the main convention hotel is notable. Like so many other convention organisers, he dropped out of fandom for a while after organising the Worldcon, and didn’t reappear for a number of years, by which time fandom had moved on. His position was never as central in later years as it had been in the beginning; and of course, now we have the Internet, and mass mobility, fans can meet and exchange ideas and conversations far more easily than they ever could before in the days of duplicated paper fanzines, sending out material by post, and journeys to meet other fans taking many hours by train or car in the pre-motorway era (let alone visiting fans in other countries). Weston writes about TAFF, the Trans-Atlantic Fan Fund, which came into being to send a fan across the Atlantic to attend the Worldcon as a sort of “ambassador” for British fandom. Peter achieved this accolade in 1974 on his third attempt (the book goes into some detail as to why that was). Now, TAFF still exists, as not everyone can afford intercontinental travel these days; and it has spawned other fan funds to send fans to and from the Antipodes to the USA or Europe.
Science fiction fandom was a sort of pre-computer internet – it encouraged people in ordinary walks of life from all over the world to communicate with other people they had never met but shared a common interest with. And out of that grew writers, convention organisers, magazine editors and a range of people who discovered talents and abilities they never knew they had. Indeed, there is a school of thought that the Internet looks the way it does because many of the people who worked in computing in the early days were themselves fans, and they built the functioning anarchy that is the Internet in fandom’s own image. Peter Weston was a part of that, and this memoir, one of a very few recording fan history in a more permanent form, is a valuable record for that reason alone.