Challenger Logo by Alan White   A Science Fiction Fanzine   Winter 2005-6

 

My life in SF Fandom

Dick Jenssen

Being an SF fan

I am a science fiction fan, as opposed to merely a reader or viewer, because I find great joy in the stories, films, and discussions of this genre. And that pleasure is the result of the interaction between what is read or seen and my personality. In other words, I am a fan simply because it is my nature to be so. It is not an active choice on my part. Indeed, to misquote Theodore Sturgeon very slightly, "Why must we love where the lightning strikes, and not where we choose? But I'm glad it's you, science fiction, I'm glad it's you". As I hope this suggests, I believe an SF fan is someone who lives slightly askew from those who inhabit the drab everyday world, someone who sees things from a modified perspective. Someone who can perceive the extraordinary in the ordinary, the ultra-mundane in the mundane, and the wonder which resides in the ubiquity of the commonplace. But there's even more to a fan.

Abraham Merritt expressed the combination of beauty of emotion and logic masterfully in The Metal Monster:  
In this great crucible of life we call the world - in the vaster one we call the universe - the mysteries lie close packed, uncountable as grains of sand on ocean's shores. They thread, gigantic, the star-flung spaces; they creep, atomic, beneath the microscope's peering eye. They walk beside us, unseen and unheard, calling out to us, asking why we are deaf to their crying, blind to their wonder. Sometimes the veil drops from a man's eyes, and he sees - and speaks of his vision.

And those who hear are the SF fans…

 

Life before Science Fiction

I was born, on July 6, 1935, in Shanghai, China, of a British father - Tia Jenssen - and a Russian mother - Gail, nee Bredihina. Mother, father and child were moved to Sydney in 1941 by Tia's employer - the Shell Oil Company. Gail and I left first, and Tia was lucky enough to be on the last ship out of Shanghai before the Japanese moved in. The rest of the family, apart from two of Gail's sisters, were interned during the war. British aunts, uncles, cousins, Russian aunts and cousins, Norwegian grandfather, Polish/Jewish grandmother all sat out the war in camps.

All survived, but the family never really got back together - split amongst the US, Canada, England and Singapore...


That name Ditmar

I was christened Martin James Ditmar Jenssen, and, as usual, my father did not remember the correct form of my naming, because for many years he thought, and told the world in every official document he signed on my behalf (school legal papers, for example), that I was Ditmar James Martin Jenssen. It was only when I had to use my birth certificate to obtain a passport and immigrant visa to the U.S. in 1963 that the correct ordering of my Christian names was discovered. There is more to say concerning 'Ditmar' below, but for now it must be pointed out that my father's family was one in which the individuals were known by names quite other than those given them. Dad was Matthew Albert, but answered only to 'Tia'; my uncle was George William, but was 'Dede' at home; my aunts were 'Tommy' and 'Lala' - names which would never have been given them. And so, I was never 'Ditmar', nor 'Martin' nor 'James', but always 'Dick'. Why I do not know. My poor mother apparently had no say in the matter - she once confided to me that she would have preferred me to have been a 'Donald Alan".

 

A first glimpse of Science Fiction Art

For as long as I can remember, I have been an SF fan. I have always responded to SF in words and images, even though until I was about fifteen, I didn't know that what I liked should be called "Science Fiction". Unfortunately, growing up in Australia in the 1940's and 50's meant that what was available was almost only comics and movie serials, and in turn that meant that SF was inevitably described as "that Buck Rogers stuff" - a description which had intensely derogatory overtones when used by those who spoke from a position of ignorance, bias and prejudice.

But two events, both when I was about eight years old, and both in the same classroom, made me realize just how wrong, and how stupid, such a negative view was.

The first was when one of the boys brought a large picture-book of astronomical paintings into class - he had either just returned from America, or had just been sent the book. Now, he was seated on the opposite side of the room to me, and was about forty-five degrees toward the front of the class, but I still could see the book with extreme clarity, and so beheld a view of Saturn from just outside its rings, in breathtaking colour. I mean breathtaking quite literally. I can remember gasping at the beauty of the painting which may, or may not, have been by Chesley Bonestell. Now I could never have imagined this for myself at the time, because any depiction of Saturn I had encountered was either a bad sketch in a comic, or a poor special effect in a serial, and in black and white. But having seen the painting, I could now not only imagine it, but could visualize variations of it, could change the colors, the viewpoint, add details or hardware - in short, that one painting suddenly opened up a world I never knew, expanded my imagination, and threw off some of the shackles which constrained it.

The other was a reading by our teacher of a story. What the story's title was, or who wrote it, I can not remember (it might even have been a Professor Branestawm yarn by Norman Hunter), but it dealt with a professor who had invented a time machine and who, accompanied by his nephew and niece, had used it to travel back into the Triassic age. Perhaps the teacher was a great reader, perhaps the story was so well told, perhaps it was my thus-stimulated imagination, or a combination of all three, but I saw the dinosaurs, the huge trees, the great ferns, heard the sounds, and moved with the small party of three through a new landscape. Again, I could never have imagined this for myself, but, once exposed to the ideas, could now embellish them.

 

Real Science Fiction

Some seven years later, my school friend Race Mathews further enriched my life and influenced it forever by giving me a digest sized magazine, dated October 1950 and which bore on its cover, in blocky letters, the words "Science Fiction". Above these words, and in a different and smaller typeface - which meant it was not as significant - was "Astounding". I read every word, and discovered that what I had responded to in the past was called Science Fiction, that this magazine was for adults, that many people took it seriously (the letter column was a mixture of enthusiasm and vaguely comprehensible science), and that there were ideas in the stories which made me think. And think deeply. SF was not only wonder, a goad to the imagination, but it also offered intellectual pleasures.

Race also let me know that the school library had a copy of Groff Conklin's The Best of Science Fiction (the first hard cover anthology of SF ever published), and told me where I could buy a copy of Healy & McComas's Adventures in Time and Space (the second hard cover anthology, and still one of the best ever). Many of the stories - those which involved time travel paradoxes in particular - forced me to think very hard indeed in order to resolve the seeming inconsistencies. They forced me to apply logic and rigor when I thought about the stories - they made me exercise not only my imagination but my intellect. Such as it was. Other stories had a mathematical bent - how to imagine a fourth space dimension, how a one-sided. one-edged, surface could exist...

And it was Race, yet again, who gave me what remains after fifty-six years my most read and second favorite novel - Abraham Merritt's The Ship of Ishtar. (The top favorite is Marcel's Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, which is also - by far - the best novel I have read. The third favorite is Henry Kuttner's Fury…).

 

The early Melbourne Science Fiction Club

Race was fifteen at this time, very mature, of a strong personality, and possessed of what appeared to be unlimited energy - which he still has. So it was not surprising that he discovered other SF fans in Melbourne, and arranged meetings where we all could get together - I was included because of the accident of knowing Race. Initially, we met in each others' houses, but the group soon grew so large that less confined spaces had to be found. The first meeting place was a coffee lounge called Val's in Swanston Street between Little Collins and Bourke Streets. It was at a Val's meeting that we decided to call ourselves a Group, but without any formal rules or brief, or office-bearers - and so, again simply by the serendipitous fact of being in the right place at the right time, I found myself a founding member of the Group which later transformed into the Club.

 

They're not (such) a weird mob

SF, I have said, brought me wonder, goaded and stimulated both my imagination and intellectual capabilities, and introduced me to new scientific and mathematical concepts - all the while entertaining me royally. Even though - if I listened to those who weren't "dreamers" and who didn't need such "escapism" - what I read was supposedly barely literate. Though it was J. R. R. Tolkien who pointed out that the people most frightened of escape are the jailers of this world - those who believe in the power and necessity of shackles. Dreamers, say the warders, are also those who live in ivory towers, quite forgetting the fact that from the top of such a tower one can see further and much more clearly than can the grunting hogs at its base, who eye only the mire and ordure through which they snuffle their lives away.

The members of the Club seemed to be neither illiterate nor intellectually challenged. They had imagination (which is necessary for dreams) and they questioned the world around them (because the view from the tower exposed more to their intellect). They may have viewed the universe aslant, but they seemed to me to be freer because of it.

 

A choice of career

If SF had done no more than affect my life as I have just sketchily outlined, it would have been a powerful shaper of my days and thoughts. But it helped mould my career. It seems likely that I would have chosen Science in any event, but the decision was inevitable given the pleasure SF had bestowed on me. And with the heavy emphasis in SF at that time on the mathematical sciences, I had to major in Physics.

Very early in my vocation as a science fiction fan, I had read F. G. Rayer's novel Tomorrow Sometimes Comes - a book which was to have a great influence on me. Not for the prose, since, at sixteen, I could not distinguish good from bad, nor Vargo Statten from John Wyndham, but for the ideas and the amazingly prophetic depiction of an invention which was to change the world, though few realised it at the time. The plot combined many disparate themes, Armageddon, the Sleeper awakes, the Redemption and Restitution of the world, and Time travel. What brought these together was that the Destroyer who unleashes Armageddon, is the Sleeper who wakes, who then becomes the Savior of the world by becoming the Time traveler. The invention which has changed our world was the computerin the novel it was the Mens Magna (which sounds so much more intimidating than Giant Brain), occupying a huge building - probably larger than a city block - and which controlled all aspects of the city, and the inhabitants' lives. It also waged a war against the "barbarian" hordes outside the gates. The Mens was capable of conducting many hundreds (if not thousands) of interviews at once, while simultaneously running all other control programs, repairing itself, and adjusting and amending its own programs. It communicated by keyboard, visual screens, and voice - both understanding human speech, and responding vocally. It was massively redundant with many "control units". All newcomers to the city were required to be interviewed by the Mens, which attempted to elicit hidden information by asking apparently disconnected questions in the nature of non sequiturs. The computer was thus self-programming, self-aware, multi-tasking, redundant, communicated in a highly sophisticated manner, and seemingly possessed of intelligence. (Remember, this was written in 1950). If the above description sounds familiar, that may be because the Alpha 60 computer in Jean-Luc Godard's 1965 film Alphaville shared all these traits. Rayer was not, of course, credited.

Five years after the Club was formed, I had just completed my B.Sc, and was so in love with the academic life that the thought of facing the whole wide, cruel, world was terrifying. But my third year results were so spotty and inconsistent - honors and bare passes - and my experimental abilities so non-existent (I think I must have been one of the very few who ever failed Practical Work), that a Master's in Physics was out of the question. But - as so often has happened in my life - luck stepped in, and a friend of mine in the third year class told me that Meteorology was looking for a Master's candidate. Which seemed about as interesting as the physics and chemistry of doughnuts, but I went to see them anyway. Again, the fickle finger waved approvingly and I found that the research topic was The Barotropic Model - a simplified set of equations governing the behavior of the atmosphere and which allowed a prediction to be made of the weather using an electronic digital computer. Australian scientists at CSIR (Council for Scientific and Industrial Research - later to become CSIRO) had built what I believe is the world's third computer which had its programs, and data, stored internally in its memory. CSIRAC, as the computer was acronymed, had just been installed within the Physics Department.

[ Continued... ]

[ Ditmar Art Portfolio 656KB ]

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