When Good Science Fiction Fans Go Bad
Ray Palmer would seem like the last person you’d expect to become “the man who killed science fiction.” Palmer, a key figure in early science fiction fandom, devoted his life to the genre as both a writer and editor, but he also caused a huge rift in the fan community. Author Fred Nadis relates the strange story of Palmer in his recent biography The Man From Mars, which describes how Hugo Gernsback, founder of the first pulp science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories, helped inspire his readers to create a better future.
“He saw [science fiction] in very practical terms of shaping the future,” Nadis says in Episode 182 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “Almost a visionary experience of imagining the future and new technologies and what they could do, but he also felt like we had to spread this faith.”
Palmer’s tireless promotion of science fiction ultimately earned him his dream job as editor of Amazing Stories. But as the pulp market started to decline, Palmer cast about for new ways to interest readers, which led him to publish the so-called “Shaver Mystery” stories—fabulous tales of an underground civilization that the author, Richard Shaver, claimed he’d actually seen. The stories brought in a flood of new readers who were interested in paranormal claims.
“All of a sudden, instead of science fiction fans, he was getting what today we would call New Age people writing in and saying, ‘Shaver’s right. I’ve been to the caverns too!’” says Nadis.
This horrified traditional science fiction fans, who thought that Palmer had betrayed Hugo Gernsback’s vision of a better future. But the fan outcry couldn’t stop the Shaver Mystery, which—according to Palmer—had boosted the circulation of Amazing Stories to over 180,000, far surpassing any competing science fiction magazine.
“The publishers were going along with it,” says Nadis, “even though there’s all this fan controversy in the Queens Science Fiction Club or whatever about how, ‘We have to stop the Shaver Mystery. We have to kill it!’”
Palmer went on to promote other dubious claims, including the hollow earth theory, and was a central figure in the UFO craze of the ’50s and ’60s, which gave birth to further conspiracies involving shadow governments and sinister reptiles. And while Palmer didn’t kill science fiction, he did forever tarnish its reputation by associating it with fringe beliefs.
“It reminds me of Don Quixote,” says Nadis, “the guy who reads so many tales of chivalry that he can’t distinguish his everyday reality from the landscape of dragons and monsters.”
Listen to our complete interview with Fred Nadis in Episode 182 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Fred Nadis on the Shaver Mystery:
“[Shaver] sent a story to Palmer about this underground civilization which he called the ‘deros,’ which was short for ‘detrimental robots.’ The deros were not mechanical robots. Shaver had this elaborate worldview, and to him a robot was a person or being who just worked automatically—they were kind of locked into a pattern of behavior. So he saw these deros as basically devils. He claimed they were kidnapping Earth women and torturing them in very sadistic, sexual manners. He had this whole theory that they had these rays that would stimulate you sexually or warp your mind. … So he was this brilliant, creative, and somewhat nuts character.”
Fred Nadis on Shaver’s mental state:
“[Shaver] had been working on an assembly line in Detroit, and he was using a welding gun, and he said he was starting to pick up brain waves through his welding gun of what people were really thinking, or he’d hear these hostile voices that were plaguing other people. So it’s sort of a psychotic break that occurred after his brother had died suddenly. … Shaver lost it and was eventually hospitalized. … But Palmer’s [approach] was always to present things and then try different angles, so he’d say, ‘I really believe that Shaver was in this other realm when he was trapped in this mental hospital, so that makes it even more likely that the story is true.’ He’d always find a way to circle back and prove his point.”
Fred Nadis on Palmer and Fate magazine:
“He lost control of Fate magazine when his partners decided that—’We don’t have to believe it, but it has to be believable’ was their motto when they took it over. Because they felt that Palmer was going too over the deep end with printing stories about Venusians walking the Earth, which was provoking letters from readers who were saying, ‘Well, actually Venusians are 15 feet tall, and purple, and hermaphrodites, and nudists, so I don’t think they’re walking the Earth.’ So this was not the makings of a mass circulation digest for Fate magazine, which actually saw its circulation climb over 100,000 in the ’50s—after Palmer left—to about 120,000. It did very well in the ’50s, because it really was a niche market. It was a place for people with psychic experiences or whatnot to find like-minded individuals, and not feel branded as kooks.”
Fred Nadis on the good side of Ray Palmer:
“He thought of himself as a crusader. He helped raise a lot of money for the Navajo Indians in the late ’40s—they were having huge food shortages back then. And he had a big crusade against nuclear fallout in the early ’50s, which led him to be investigated by the FBI as a possible Communist, because he was saying, ‘The government’s lying to you about the dangers of fallout.’ And indeed the government was circulating pamphlets to people in Nevada saying, ‘You really don’t have to worry about these tests. They’re not going to harm you in any way.’ He also warned people about pesticides before Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. So again, his desire to take up new ideas and challenge authority was pretty strong. So he was a strong-minded character, who did do a lot of good—as well as a lot of bad.”
See original article –