A Wealth Of Fable Review

By | Wednesday, July 07, 2010 Leave a Comment
I'm only about halfway through A Wealth of Fable by Harry Warner, Jr. but I wanted to write a quick review now, primarily because it's looking increasingly like it will be a very hard book for me to finish. It's essentially a sequel to All Our Yesterdays and covers the history of science fiction fandom in the 1950s. (Yesterdays covered the earliest days of sci-fi fandom through the 1940s.)

The individual anecdotes and references can be really interesting. Warner, after all, was active in fandom from 1936 until his death in 2003. And, as a journalist by trade, he knows about grammar and sentence structure and such.

But the organization of the book is a complete and utter mess. It's not chronological, or gathered by region or type of fan activity. Each chapter seems to have little or no bearing on preceding or subsequent chapters, other than occasionally referencing a person or group that he'd mentioned before. Warner also relies heavily on fandom slang, but doesn't provide any definitions or explanations of any of the terms until Chapter Ten. And even then, I'm still not sure what "Courtney's Boat" is supposed to mean! He opens the book on page one with references to different "eras" of fandom, provides a basic framework for this idea on page 26, makes repeated references to the various eras throughout the book, but doesn't actually explain any of them until Chapter 11. And then only provides information on the First and Seventh Fandoms.

Problem two is more a personal preference, admittedly, but the pictures in the book are, with exactly one exception, entirely personality shots of the people he's discussing. There is not one fanzine cover, or convention floor shot, or a retailer booth shot, or shelf porn, or anything. The only image that isn't a person shot is that of the Hugo Award. It's not necessarily a bad thing that it's mostly head shots, but personally I would've liked to have seen more contextual images. Something that really added to the text, and didn't merely illustrate a small portion of it.

The book clocks in at 456 pages. Which means Warner spends a lot of time talking about insignificant events in minute detail. There's a strange side bit of business talking about how Harlan Ellison, still a young fan at the time, shared a hotel room with several other convention goers and how he woke up convinced that someone had amputated his leg because it had slipped into the crack between the two mattresses. It's an interesting anecdote, but not really relevant to anything, especially in light of the fact that the tale is thrown in the middle of the origin of the Seventh Fandom. Most of Chapter Nine is centered on how one guy spent six years convincing people of the existence of an imaginary fan named Joan Carr. Warner goes into exquisite detail about how mail had to be routed, and who had to be friends with whom in the mailroom, and how things were handled when he went on vacation, and on and on.

The problem I have with this book -- as with most fandom histories I've read -- is that it's written more as a set of memories than an actual history. I don't doubt Warner (and other fandom history writers I've seen) have done their research and verified their facts and whatnot, but it's almost like he wrote a quick outline of all the great things he remembered from fandom, looked up the details to make sure he kept things accurate, and then scrawled out every single scrap of information he could get his hands on. Regardless of how trivial. It's an exercise in nostalgia, written almost exclusively for the people who are mentioned in it.

To some degree, I knew that was going to be the case going in. I've read All Our Yesterdays and it, too, was filled with irrelevant minutia. But it at least seemed organized. Fable just comes across as almost a stream-of-fact-checked-consciousness piece.

Which is a damn shame, because there are some legitimately interesting and useful bits of information in there. I've come across several references to pieces that I've made notes to explore further. There are some good quotes and unique perspectives on fandom scattered in. But wading through the muck to find the occasional gem is a chore.
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