As we near the end of what has been, for us personally, a staggeringly busy and chaotic 2008, I want to take time to acknowledge the passing of an iconic figure in the world of science fiction: Forest J Ackerman.
Uncle Forry was the archetypal SF fanboy. The picture at the top of this post is Forry from the first World Science Fiction Convention in New York in 1939. He’s seen here wearing a costume apparently made by his then girlfriend. No one knows what possessed him to wear a costume, but geeks everywhere have since follow his siren call.
Instead I want to draw attention to a couple significant contributions Forry made to the world of science fiction—and one infamous one.
Between the ages of 10 and 13 I was a religious reader of what is perhaps Forry’s biggest accomplishment in the world of science fiction, Famous Monsters of Filmland—a magazine dedicated to classic and new SF, fantasy and horror movies. FM was a bigger influence on the generation before me, the Boomers. Peter Jackson, Stephen King, Spielberg and George Lucas were all avid readers. I encountered FM in what could be considered the waning days of the magazine. (FM was revived in the 90s, but the resuscitated version has been controversial with fans and resulted in Forry’s entanglement in a lawsuit with the new publisher/editor.) But FM had a huge impact on me anyway.
In particular, FM became a window onto mysterious films that I had no access to. The result of which was that my imagination created movies that were often more interesting than the real thing. I had nightmares about Mario Bava’s “Black Sabbath” from looking at a couple grainy black and white pictures of Barbara Steele in FM.
To this day, I have avoided actually seeing Black Sabbath for fear that it can’t possibly live up to the expectations of my fevered 12-year-old imagination. Often the things we love as children should be preserved in that mental landscape of the rosy past.
Forry’s other major contribution to science fiction was as a literary agent. He represented SF luminaries such as Van Vogt, Asimov, Gernsbach—Ray Bradbury owed his career, at least in part, to Forry’s encouragement.
Finally, and perhaps most widely felt in our culture, was Forry’s coinage of the term “sci-fi”—a term so controversial among fans and insiders that, to this day, I can’t use it myself. To the average person, “sci-fi” is a commonplace label. “Sci-fi”, in fact, captures what many people see as the inherent silliness of the genre—its gee-whiz origins.
For someone like me, who grew up on New Wave writers like Harlan Ellison and came of age on cyberpunk, “sci-fi” is anathema.
But, even though my innate cynicism prevents me from embracing Forry’s “sci-fi”, I was, and still am, moved by his boyish enthusiasm. There is an underlying optimism to a lot of the science fiction field that can lift you out of the daily grind and air out your imagination with what can occasionally seem like the limitless possibilities of the future.
In closing, I present this video of The Dresden Dolls performing a piece I’m sure Forry knew well, and I imagine, couldn’t but admire.
He will be missed.