With stars in my eyes; my adventures in British fandom by Peter Weston

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.

The 2001 File; Harry Lange and the design of the landmark science fiction film by Christopher Frayling

This handsome book is a collection of the drawings from the Harry Lange archive. Harry Lange worked for NASA as a conceptual artist, and together with Frederick Ordway was headhunted (albeit with NASA’s blessing) by Stanley Kubrick to work on 2001. Much of the look and feel of the film’s future technology is down to Lange and Ordway.

Christopher Frayling contributes a fascinating essay which takes up perhaps the first third of the book. He has found out all sorts of interesting things that throw new light on not just the film, but also on NASA and the whole US space programme. For example, many of NASA’s “German engineers” were not ex-Peenemunde, ‘Operation Paperclip’ refugees of opportunity. A number of expatriate Germans of the first post-war generation, especially those escaping from East Germany, gravitated towards Wernher von Braun; Lange was amongst them.

Lange and Ordway were close to a lot of NASA planning during the 1960s, and Frayling puts together a picture of NASA planning the next thirty years after Apollo; Lange and Ordway were central to this, producing many of the concepts that Kubrick later mined for the film. In short, 2001 is perhaps as good a picture as we can possibly have of how the future might have looked had the Apollo programme run its course and been hailed as the precursor to more sustained American involvement in space.

We also get a picture of Arthur C. Clarke’s involvement with Kubrick; and for those who know some of Clarke’s history and origins, it is illustrative to see his elevation from British science fiction fan in the pre-war years (I nearly said ‘humble science fiction fan’, but Clarke was never that!), via his successful professional sales in the 1950s, to one of the Great and the Good in the astronomical and spaceflight communities in the 1960s, attending major conferences here, or hobnobbing with senior NASA officials there. Of course, Clarke’s own personality helped a lot – even before the war, he was known to the British fan community as “‘Ego’ Clarke” – but mere self-belief does not on its own a major luminary make.

Kubrick’s meticulous – some might say obsessive – approach to film-making saw its full expression in the making of 2001, and Frayling’s essay shows this. In order to try to make the best science fiction film ever, Kubrick engaged with major figures in science, technology and engineering, making the central section of 2001 a serious exercise in futurology. The EVA pods on board the Discovery were built by British aerospace firm Hawker Siddeley; the centrifuge was built by Vickers Armstrong – no mere props these, they were serious pieces of engineering. The bottom line of that was that there was nothing in the film that could not have been built by 2001 had the political will to do so existed.

This is not the book to read if you want to know the story of the making of 2001 in detail, though Frayling’s essay is a valuable contribution to the literature on the subject. But the drawings from Harry Lange show the level of detail and thought that Kubrick was prepared to go into, and they throw intense light on the creative process, the development and evolution of the look and feel of the film, and the thinking that was the everyday long-term goal of NASA in the 1960s. This book is therefore as important for understanding the thinking in the spaceflight community as it is a document in the story of what probably is, after all, the best science fiction film ever made.

Different kinds of darkness by David Langford

This is the fairly definitive collection of all of Dave Langford’s serious short fiction up to 2004. It covers science fiction, fantasy and horror – though the horror is a particularly British type where the horrors are all of our own making. I was particularly struck by a 1994 story Serpent Eggs, wherein a UFO investigator follows up a story which takes him to a hippie commune on a remote Scottish island, and gets his comeuppance through his own lack of scientific knowledge. The writing in this story felt particularly dreich, as the Scots say, and the scene setting was particularly effective.

There are four outright fantasy stories in the collection; some have commented that they felt them to be so-so (although Dave Langford’s ‘so-so’ would be the highest quality of many other writers in the genre), but I was well engaged with each of them, perhaps because I read very little heroic fantasy.

The best in the book is left to last; four of Dave’s stories of ‘basilisks’, fractal images specifically designed to short-circuit the brains of anyone who looks at them. The last, from which the collection takes its name, shows the life-changing effects of taking any new thing to its ultimate conclusion, and is as good a piece of ‘out-there’ thinking as you could wish for. It won the Hugo Award for best short story in 2001.

He do the Time Police in different voices by David Langford

This book brings together all of David Langford’s sf parodies and pastiches up to publication in 2003. The first part was published in 1988 as The Dragonhiker’s Guide to Battlefield Covenant at Dune’s Edge, Odyssey Two; long out of print, the book was originally published by Roger Peyton’s Drunken Dragon Press, which was a spin-off from the late lamented Andromeda Bookshop in Birmingham. The styles of the authors being lampooned are fairly well replicated, though some will find the humour a little under-graduate; but they are, after all, fairly early work.

The second half was discussed for publication as a direct sequel to the first, and the joke was that Rog Peyton was going to insist that the second volume just be called Two as a counterpoint to the slightly longer title of the first volume. It never saw the light of day at the time, partly because Langford makes a living from writing and this sort of thing isn’t a great money-spinner; and the author makes a point of doing his research even for a project like this, to make sure that the styles are properly replicated. So the second part of this book is properly, if even more briefly, entitled 2.

The pastiches in the second half are – for the most part – rather more polished and substantial. The Spear of the Sun (first published in the British sf magazine Interzone) is not just a G.K. Chesterton pastiche, but indeed is a clever meta-fiction, set within an alternate universe where Chesterton wrote science fiction and popularised the genre in the UK before Hugo Gernsback could get a look in. Out of space, out of time is an interesting piece of Lovecraftiana. If looks could kill came from the shared-world anthology Temps (properly, the second volume, Eurotemps). There are also some E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith pastiches which are nearer to the earlier parodies, one of which – the resoundingly-titled Sex Pirates of the Blood Asteroid – dates from 1979, earlier than most of the other entries in the second part.

The whole volume, published by small-press outfit Cosmos Books, is well worth acquiring. .

“come not, Lucifer!”; a Romantic anthology

This volume was published towards the end of the Second World War, and probably marks the ending of paper restrictions. It is a somewhat upmarket volume, with (to my mind, indifferent) illustrations and on quite good paper stock. Original price was twelve shillings and sixpence. The editor is not named; the imprint was actually the work of a Jewish émigré to London, David Gottlieb, whose story is an interesting by-way of 20th century British publishing history (see: http://www.lomaxpress.co.uk/westhouse.html)

The avowed aim of the volume was to explore the mixture of fascination and disgust that Romantic writers held with their own fears and what we would now describe as “the dark side”. However, the stories selected seem a little haphazard, and in more than one instance now look more as though they are selected for appearance rather than impact. A number of them don’t really have any denouement and are either effective mood pieces or moral tales.

We get three Poes – King Pest, which is a collection of grotesques and little else, and two classics, The Strange Case of M.Valdemar and The Black Cat. There is a piece by Herman Melville, Bartleby, which is well written but ultimately goers nowhere; there is Dickens’ The Signalman, which is a well-known piece of early Victorian techno-horror; a le Fanu piece which has no real resolution beyond the death of the protagonist, for which the writer hints at, but fails to effectively deliver, any sort of explanation; an effective piece of local nastiness from Balzac; and the great-grandfather of all those plots where the hope of salvation looks too good to be true and turns out in the end to indeed, be too good to be true is explored in an effective story from Villiers de l’isle Adam.

There are two stories from Robert Louis Stevenson, of which one is an effective piece of what we would now call disablist bullying by a small community, spoilt by being delivered almost entirely in 18th or 19th-century written local Scots dialect, which makes it almost impenetrable and which takes away any of the impact the story might otherwise have; the other, A Lodging for the Night, is well-written, effectively shows the nasty side of Parisian medieval life, but which suffers from RLS knowing nothing about 15th-century Paris, imagining it to be pretty much like 19th-century Edinburgh, and also from not really having any particular resolution, much as I kept hoping for something nasty to happen to the protagonist.

The highlights of the collection are two Pushkin stories; The Pistol Shot, which is a bit of a fireside tale and doesn’t really go anywhere other than to investigate improbable coincidences allowing a duelling story to be finished some eight or so years after it was started; and the highlight for me, The Queen of Spades, a tale of supernatural events amongst the decadence of the Tsarist officer class in St. Petersburg, which I knew from the Tchaikovsky opera (sometimes known as Pique Dame).

Overall, then, a somewhat uneven collection, not helped by the un-named editor dismissing in the Introduction some of the stories as ‘not totally fit for purpose’. But the collection includes sufficient stories of merit to justify anyone seeing a copy of this to acquire it for themselves.

The Dragon waiting by John M. Ford

Despite the title (there is no “real” dragon in the book), this reads more like an alternate history first and a fantasy second. The premise is that Byzantium endured and neither Christianity nor Islam became a dominant religion (which also means that various pagan beliefs from across Europe also persisted). Furthermore, magic works (within certain limits – in particular, wizards can’t practice magic without it taking an immediate toll on their strength and health) and there are vampires, albeit with a rationale for the characteristics of that condition.

The story is set in the late Medieval period, during the Wars of the Roses. A Welsh magician, a disinherited Byzantine scion turned soldier of fortune, a female Medici with medical skills and a Bavarian vampire ordnance engineer are brought together to play a part in ultimately putting Richard III on the throne of England and thwarting the advance of Byzantium. The world-building is exceptionally well-detailed and the scene painting is particularly vivid.

The action of the book is a little episodic, and the continual shifts in point of view characters does mean that not all the events of the book happen on-stage. Add to that the fact that, especially in the last third of the book when the action moves to the British Isles, characters may be identified by their proper names or by their titles, (plus disguises, costumed and/or magical) and the whole thing does get a little hard to follow without a family tree or two to hand. So just like real Plantagenet history, then.

The four main protagonists are well-drawn, though having all four active in the plot at the same time does perhaps leave that characterisation a bit thin in a 350-page novel rather than a 800-page doorstop blockbuster. Still, less is more. And Ford’s research is good, with very few lapses caused by a transatlantic perspective – about the only example I tripped over were the murderers of the Duke of Clarence (of ‘butt of malmsey’ fame), whose accents mainly seem inspired by Lady Penelope’s butler Parker in the 1960s Thunderbirds tv series. The text is allusion-rich, some of these being buried quite deep. There was one Tolkein allusion that made me laugh out loud.

Overall, then, a fantasy novel that reads like an alternate history, is well-written, more historically accurate than most, and above all intelligent whilst still retaining all the suspense and excitement of big bangs and derring-do. A palpable hit.

Die ÖBB Reihe 4010; der elektrische Triebwagenzug “Transalpin II” by Markus Inderst and Franz Gemeinböck

This magazine-format book tells the story of the iconic Austrian class 4010 electric multiple unit trains, introduced in 1967 to upgrade the prestige Vienna – Zürich ‘Transalpin’ service and not withdrawn until 2009. The book is illustrated throughout with quality colour photographs, though there is the odd sheet where the colour separations are not perfectly aligned.

The book starts with a short history of long-distance railcar services in Austria, then continues with a highly detailed building and service history, and finally speaks of the twilight months of the class and their replacements. The book was published shortly before the new ÖBB flagship trains, the ‘Railjets’, came into fleet service.

Some interesting sidelights on the class are examined and supported with photographic evidence. However, although the book describes the forerunners of the 4010s, the 4130 class that formed the initial ‘Transalpin’ services in the early 1960s, these are not illustrated with photographs. The photographs that do accompany this chapter relate to the development phase of the 4010s, but this is glossed over in the text in about one paragraph. There is considerable discussion of unusual formations of 4010 components (Austrian railwaymen seem to believe that anything can be coupled to anything else, and do), including some fascinating accounts of what the railwaymen call “lange Loks’ – that is, the power car coupled to the driving trailer, and operated as a single locomotive, including some accounts of local services being provided by a ‘lange Lok’ and three or four four-wheeled balcony coaches! Sadly, this is not supported by photographs.

There is a better selection of photographs illustrating ‘drags’ – times when diverted services were run over non-electrified lines – and some late formations where the train was strengthened, or even wholly powered, by additional locomotives. Also of interest are pictures showing strengthened formulations where special trains were run over mountain sections which the 4010s couldn’t handle on their own, and the various instances and possible combinations where the ÖBB ran two 4010s coupled together to make a 14-coach train.

The book was published too early to give an account of the trailer cars sold on to a private operator in Germany with an eye to refurbishment. But this is overall a fine account of a train which, even in its twilight years, provided a more comfortable ride than many ‘flagship’ trains in the UK.