Lilburn fanzine publisher helped sci-fi flourish

More than 40,000 Klingons, Jedi knights and devotees of science fiction and fantasy are expected to descend on downtown Atlanta starting Friday for the 24th annual DragonCon festival.

Where do these people come from? An answer lies in a nondescript house in a Lilburn subdivision, stuffed with typewriters and mimeograph machines, staplers and faded amateur anthologies.

Welcome to the home of Cuyler “Ned” Brooks, fanzine publisher.

For the past half century, his amateur publishing setup -- now more of a museum -- helped create and sustain a worldwide network of science-fiction fans. Long before the Internet, they shared opinions by typing, copying and mailing their own periodicals.

Fanzines -- now mostly published on the Web -- helped stamp into the sci-fi culture the strong ties that make DragonCon a family reunion for many.

“You don’t get DragonCon without people like Ned,” said Toni Weisskopf, a friend of 30 years and publisher of Athens-based Baen Books, which specializes in sci-fi titles.

“One of the central questions of science fiction is: What does it mean to be human? That’s not an enthusiasm you lose when you get older ...  and Ned is an equal-opportunity friend if you are interested in science fiction."

Brooks, now 72, became fascinated with other worlds during America’s race to the moon.

As a NASA wind tunnel engineer, hired after graduation from Georgia Tech in 1959, Brooks answered a small ad in a science-fiction magazine: “Discover fandom for $2!”

A stack of fanzines arrived. The authors weren't content with merely penning a note to a sci-fi magazine and hoping for publication. They wanted interactivity before that term became a buzzword and the guarantee that their comment would post. They stuffed fanzines with letters, poems, stories and critiques, as well as personal updates and random observations. “Fandom is something that comes in the mail” was their slogan.

“I saw how fanzines were done with typewriters and mimeograph stencils, and I had that,” Brooks said. “Once I had something to write about, I started amateur publishing. It’s a commentary on science fiction in a slow conversation. A blog does the same thing now, it just goes faster.”

Fanzines also competed to see which showed the most devotion.

“A few people even made their own paper,” Brooks said. “I don’t think anyone made their own ink, but as much as possible, it was very much hands-on -- the layout, illustrations and so forth.”

By the 1970s, Brooks was using an electric typewriter and a RexRotary mimeographer to comment on everything sci-fi that came from the postman.

His bimonthly "It Comes in the Mail" did not charge subscriptions "and died of success," he said. "I could not keep up as material accumulated too fast. The 28th issue was late and had four covers to use the contributed artwork."

Why was this genre so popular for so long?

“Fanzines really did anticipate the Internet in that ... there were no boundaries,” Weisskopf said. “You could talk intelligently about [science fiction] no matter how old you were, if you were a girl, or housebound. I’d like to say there were fewer flame wars, but there weren’t. It was just slower. It was, though, more likely to nurture longer, more thoughtful pieces, not [limited by] how many characters in a tweet. You can post a note on Facebook now, but it won’t be beautifully illustrated with gorgeous typesetting.”

Fanzines connected Brooks to conventions, the forerunners of DragonCon. The staplers gave him options of binding the edge of the paper or middle. The typewriter collection grew out of his interest in changing the fonts and look of his fanzine -- a world that the computer further transformed.

“A line of 13-point Campanile is quite a bit shorter than a line of 13-point Goudy Old Style,” he wrote in a recent fanzine. “But it is also a lot harder to read.”

A few paragraphs later, he pointed out: "Just because a submarine like the Nautilus could have been built when Jules Verne wrote about it does not mean it would have been."

Fanzines became this lifelong bachelor’s means of making and keeping friends.

In Brooks' two pages of July's 486th edition of the fanzine Slanapa (Slanderous Amateur Press Association), he mostly wrote about life: shout-outs to sci-fi friends for a wedding, new job and surgeries; criticism of music on iPhones; a description of Google as "the modern oracle."

His house has adapted to his collections, with one fanzine spreading from a linen closet to the shelf over the powder room sink. The 100th edition of one fanzine had 1,500 pages.

Today, fanzines are considered a valuable archive of what everyday people around the world were thinking and discussing before the Internet, in an era when Americans found new leisure time and enough disposable income for paper and postage.

“It’s enormously important,” said Melissa Conway, head of the special collection of fanzines at the University of California-Riverside. “There are people who started in this when they were 13 and are 90 now. ... This is a month-by-month record of the readers of science fiction, their conversations and community. It’s how they became lifetime friends, much like our kids do now on Facebook.”

Brooks sent her 65 pounds of fanzines to fill gaps in her archive. She was not surprised. When a longtime Los Angeles sci-fi fan had a stroke, his landlord threatened to toss his fanzines in a Dumpster. To the rescue came fellow fans, who quickly packed and delivered 550 boxes of fanzines to Conway.

“I am constantly impressed with their intelligence, loyalty and wit,” Conway said. “They tend to be not sociable in other ways -- introverted more than extroverted. This was a place they were immediately accepted and comfortable, and where they would go on to become more extroverted. ... All you have to do is love and appreciate the genre and you’re in.“

Brooks still publishes It Goes on the Shelf each month on the Internet. He has never gone to DragonCon. He sees little connection between that event and himself.

To him, fanzines belong to a generation that grew up without TV, more in their own imaginations, expressing their passion for science fiction with paper and type.

Convention preview

24th DragonCon.

Sept. 3-6. Sheraton Atlanta Hotel and other downtown locations. 770-909-0115, .