University of Calgary

How sci-fi fans changed the culture of reading

UToday HomeJanuary 17, 2013

Will Straw will visit campus on Friday to discuss science fiction fan culture. Photo courtesy of Will StrawWill Straw will visit campus on Friday to discuss science fiction fan culture. Photo courtesy of Will StrawLibraries are usually considered repositories for great works of art in our society, especially “Literature” with a capital-L. But the University of Calgary is doing more to expand our understanding of literary value with their special collections of popular fiction. Housed alongside the rare books and archives of great Canadian writers like Timothy Findley and Mordecai Richler are unparalleled collections of Harlequin novels, comic strips, and, most significantly, science and speculative fiction.

Why collect works often classified as “pulp fiction” — a term that denotes their cheap production and short cultural lives? Will Straw, director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada and author of Cyanide and Sin: Visualizing Crime in Fifties America, argues that they can teach us a lot about cultural and social relationships.

“We learn that popular culture is endlessly productive in inspiring people to do their own, non-remunerated writing and publishing, and that they will find and develop the media with which to do so,” says Straw. “We learn that the most important thing about culture is the conversations it inspires.”

Straw will give a lecture entitled Media, Networks and Movements in 1940s Science Fiction Fan Culture this Friday at 1:30 p.m. in the Taylor Family Digital Library Gallery Hall. Straw argues that science fiction, in particular, developed new relationships between texts and readers that ultimately led to the present day where, as some claim, the “geeks have inherited the Earth.” In the first instance, they developed their own publishing and distribution networks such as Amateur Press Associations. In the second, they organized conventions and festivals that were once low-level gatherings of a small number of devotees and are now mainstays of our cultural economy.

William Robert (Bob) Gibson was one such pioneer. Born in 1908 in Springbank, Alta., Gibson amassed a collection of over 25,000 science and speculative fiction titles that was legendary among used booksellers and fan groups. After his death in 2002, his son generously donated the collection to the university, where it is available to researchers from around the world. It is regarded as one of the largest collections of its kind and represents the evolution of book collecting and fan culture in the twentieth century.

Straw’s appearance is co-sponsored by the Department of English and Libraries and Cultural Resources.