How did science fiction begin? Who were the pioneers that defined the genre? What would it have been like to be a fan of this incredible new genre in the 1930s?
Welcome to First Fandom Experience. We are a cooperative publishing project whose goal is to honor, preserve, and bring to life the history of science fiction and science fiction fandom. We aim to connect modern science fiction fans with the rich history of the genre, and to give readers a visceral sense of what it might have been like to be one of the “first fans”. We seek to explore questions like “what is the purpose of science fiction?” and “what does it mean to be a fan?”
This project is a historical archive wrapped in a story. Our team of collectors, historians, and librarians have compiled and curated one of the world’s leading collections of science fiction material from the origins of the genre, with a focus on the scarce material produced by the first fans of the 1930s and early 1940s. Our mission is to tell the history of science fiction and fandom through these artifacts, many of which have never before been republished or seen by anyone except a few collectors.
In pursuit of this mission, we are publishing a variety of works both in print and online. Our current publications include:
A Visual History of Science Fiction Fandom: Deluxe Preview Edition
100 pages of content telling the story of the origins of science fiction fandom in the 1930s. This history creates a narrative thread through the early years of fandom with a focus on the historical artifacts of the time, such as fanzines and correspondence. See the earliest fan-produced magazines. Learn how legendary authors like Ray Bradbury, Frederick Pohl, and Isaac Asimov got their start. Uncover how early fans went on to establish the Golden Age of science fiction and comics. Enjoy new, original illustrations and graphic novelizations that bring this history to life.
The Complete Science Fiction Digest and Fantasy Magazine
Reproduced in its entirety in print for the first time, this three-volume set contains the complete run of the seminal fan magazines Science Fiction Digest and Fantasy Magazine, including the serialized novel Cosmos.
In addition to these works, we are intending to publish two new volumes in early 2020:
A Visual History of Science Fiction Fandom: A Tour of the 1930s
This 300+ page volume is the full version of the preview Edition. This volume celebrates the history of science fiction fandom with never-before seen artifacts from the time, detailed context to place and explain those artifacts and draw together the narrative story of the decade, as well as new, original graphic novel and illustrated segments that revitalize and retell key scenes from the history.
A complete facsimile reproduction of The Planet, The Time Traveller, and Science Fiction: The Advance Guard of Civilization
These seminal fanzines were among the first of their kind and are essential pieces of the history of science fiction fandom. Discover the earliest-produced fanzines, including the fan mag of Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.
First Fandom Experience is a passion project run by fans who care about the history of science fiction. The project is funded almost entirely out of pocket, and all the money earned through sales of our publications are put right back into the project.
In order to help offset the cost of production, we are seeking to raise $10,000 through Kickstarter with a campaign set to launch November 1. If this history fascinates you or if you value the archival and preservation efforts of our project, please consider supporting us by purchasing one of our publications or supporting our Kickstarter. An outline of rewards for supporters is below.
We would like to thank all the fans and contributors who have helped us so far. We look forward to continuing this project to honor, preserve, and bring to life the history of science fiction and the first fans.
We will post an update to this entry and a new blog post once the Kickstarter project is live.
Prize Structure for Kickstarter Support
Receive an FFE team Pin
Copy of Deluxe Preview
FFE team pin
Receive a copy of Cosmos, a facsimile reproduction of a seminal round-robin novel.
FFE team pin
Choice: Reserve a copy of the Visual History of Science Fiction Fandom or receive a copy of The Complete Science Fiction Digest and Fantasy Magazine facsimile volume
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Earn both a copy of The Visual History as well as The Complete SFD and FM
In some ways, early science fiction fandom was like a family. Think Leave It To Beaver meets Jersey Shore. The love and hate in the complex web of relationships often played out both in person and in fanzines. A shining example: a 1938 late-night road trip worthy of Scorsese’s After Hours.
In February 1938, Samuel A. Moskowitz penned a saccharin homage to his brothers and occasional sister in the fan community. “They’re Grand” appeared in The Science Fiction Fan (v2n6).
Little did Sam expect that his open embrace would be taken by some as an open door. The very next month, certain intrepid fans embarked on an epic soiree, as described in Richard Wilson’s The S-F Dividend (n2, distributed with the April 2 1938 issue of The Science Fiction News Letter). It’s also a delightful tour of the New York Area public transportation system of the day.
Seems Moskowitz might not have been overjoyed at the pre-dawn intrusion. In the March-April 1938 issue of The Science Fiction Collector (v3n6), he posted a somewhat evolved view of his fannish comrades under the (sadly faded) title, “They’re Grand, But They Have Their Faults.”
It’s not completely clear that Sam is referring here to the March 13 home invasion, but it seems likely. The “perverted brain” is pretty clearly the arch-nemesis Donald A. Wollheim.
Of course Richard Wilson wasn’t going to let this stand. He responded in the June-July issue of The Science Fiction Collector (v4n2).
Text transcribed below.
Sam Apologizes – By Proxy by Richard Wilson, Jr. This is written to set at ease the minds of Milton Rothman, Oliver Saari and any other who were apologized by the article, or a part of it, written by Sam Moskowitz: “They’re Grand — But They Have Their Faults.” The question most frequently asked seems to be: “Who were the two drunks that visited Mr. Moskowitz’ Newark that fatal night?” The question as such, cannot be answered. No inebriated individuals visited the Home of Helios that night — or rather, morning. Two stf fans undertook the perilous journey that day. But they weren’t drunk. They may have been crazy, but they weren’t cozzled. I should know; I was one of them. Jack Gillespie was the other. And why didn’t Samuel give our names? Self-defense, most likely. So that, should we become indignant and sue, he could smile ingratiatingly and say, oilily, “Why, I wasn’t referring to you boys. Heaven forbid! I was talking about two other fellows.” You know the gag, Nor was it our fault we arrived so late — or early as you will. We left N.Y. at a reasonable hour; midnight or so, I think it was. The blame should be laid at the door, or doors, of the many transportation co.s to be found between Manhattan and Newark: ferries, railroads, tubes and taxis. Let this serve to absolve G. Hahn of all suspicion of being an occasional, or otherwise, tippler. When the much discussed incident took place, George was, more than likely, at home (in Buffalo, or whatever the name of the place is) tossing Noddish sheep over fences. Sic transit gloria mundi! And on Sunday mornings, too.
George R. Hahn appears to be the fifteen-year-old fan in question, a seemingly precocious lad who’s credited with publishing his own fanzine as early as 1936 at age 13 (The Asteroid (II), per Pavlat & Evans). He had a brief run as a professional writer beginning with the January 1939 publication of “The Fifth Candle” in Weird Tales (as Cyril Mand, per isfdb.org).
(Hahn, je crois; Dockweiler called it the New Science Fiction Special) – “At about four-thirty ack emma, while leering a trifle crookedly at the murals, Harry got The Idea. Why not a Rummy’s Stf Special? After a little thought, and some help from his fellow sot and Jack [the bartender], he decided upon the concoction. # He simply took the old, well-known gin-and-ginger ale, and added a touch of bitters. # Now, lean close. Fill a Tall Glass — not completely, you yap, unless you think you’re good – half gin, the rest ginger ale. Then, a dash of bitters …. Two drinks had Harry (who detests Efjay) admitting that Forrest might not be such a bad guy after all. A couple more and he went off on a crying jag over an old, lost love of his.” — From an unpublished manuscript by Harry Dockweiler, written probably in 1937.
Since the inception of the institution in 1938, the spontaneous all-nighter remains a fannish tradition to this day. Anyone that’s stayed at a hotel hosting a science fiction convention and attempted to sleep can attest to this based on the all-hours and boisterous hallway traffic outside their door.
We have the word “experience” in the name of our project for a reason. We’re hoping to bring early fandom to life in a more visceral, accessible and interactive way than previous histories of the period. To that end, we’re always searching for examples of what fans of the 1930s did when they weren’t slaving over a typewriter, mimeograph machine or steaming vat of hectography gelatin.
One thing some of them did is eat ice cream. Not remarkable in itself, but we’d assume that hard-core science fiction fanatics would find a way to make dessert a part of their primary fixation.
As we can see from this article by future-Futurian Frederik Pohl in the The International Observer (v2n7, January 1937), we know that they did just that.
Donald A. Wollheim and John B. Michel published an enhanced and refined version of the recipe in The Science Fiction Bugle, May 1937.
We’re tempted to believe the stain on the Bugle is chocolate sauce from 1937. Untangling the references:
The “last Clayton Astounding Stories” was March 1933, pictured above, the ship on the cover apparently sliced up banana-wise.
“The Affair of the Brains” by Anthony Gilmore appeared in the March 1932 issue of Astounding Stories. “Five human brains lay all immersed in the glowing case, each resting in a shallow metal pan.” Seems like we should have two more scoops to be fully aligned with the story. Kirk chose strawberry, vanilla and pistachio.
“The Last Evolution” by John W. Campbell is from Amazing Stories, August 1932. Humans build machines that evolve into sentient beings of pure force, obsoleting men who can’t change as fast. Just like whipped cream?
“Derwin” is the D in Charles D. Hornig, then-Editor of Wonder Stories and an object of scorn among Wollheim’s posse. We do not know the particulars of the “Gorong Gun,” and can only presume that things did Go Rong, the cherry syrup representing poor Derwin’s spilled blood.
“The Brain-Eaters of Pluto” by Kenneth Sterling appeared in the March 1934 issue of Wonder Stories. It was written by Sterling when he was thirteen years old. “…a parodic collection of puns, wise-cracks, contemporary slang, period references, etc., loosely draped on a rescue plot…” (Bleiler & Bleiler, The Gernsback Years).
“The Brain Stealers of Mars” by John W. Campbell was published in Thrilling Wonder Stories, December 1936. Here we met the shape-shifting creatures who would later inhabit Antarctica in “Who Goes There?” and the film The Thing.
Pecans look like tiny brains, obviously.
In an interview with John L. Coker III, David Kyle recalled this treat as a regular feature of meetings of the International Scientific Association, one of the warring fan-factions of New York at the time:
“I went to a meeting of the ISA and there I met Donald Wollheim, Fred Pohl, Dick Wilson, John Michel, and a few others who came a little later, like Robert W. Lowndes, Chester Cohen, and Cyril Kornbluth. After the meeting, which was on a Sunday, we did what all young guys did in those years: we went to a soda fountain. Somebody said that they wanted certain flavors, with nuts and a cherry, custom-made by the ice cream shop. It was called the ‘Science Fiction Sundae.’ It was a small store and we went there regularly. You didn’t have to go through a routine of the ingredients, we’d just ask for it by name.”
Be on the lookout at upcoming conferences for a “Science Fiction Special” ice cream event sponsored by First Fandom Experience!
In May 1937, John W. Campbell, Jr. was looking for work. He was in good company — the unemployment rate in the United States was fluctuating around 15%, reflecting the lingering economic malaise of the Great Depression. Despite his degree in Physics and some success as a writer of science fiction stories, Campbell hadn’t found a steady gig.
This was to change in the Fall of that year when Campbell was hired as the Editor of Astounding Stories, where he reigned until his death in 1971. His Wikipedia entry describes his subsequent impact on science fiction:
“Referring to his time spent as an editor, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction wrote: ‘More than any other individual, he helped to shape modern sf. Isaac Asimov called Campbell ‘the most powerful force in science fiction ever’ and said the ‘first ten years of his editorship he dominated the field completely.’ In his capacity as an editor, Campbell published some of the very earliest work, and helped shape the careers, of virtually every important sf author to debut between 1938 and 1946, including Robert A. Heinlein, Theodore Sturgeon, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke.”
As a tribute to Campbell, in 1973 the World Science Fiction Society established the “John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer.” This prize has been awarded yearly ever since — until Tuesday, August 27, 2019.
The award still exists, but on that day was renamed the “Astounding Award for Best New Writer.” As reported in the New York Times and elsewhere, this shift was driven by renewed attention to Campbell’s well-known, publicly-expressed racism. Jeanette Ng, winner of the 2019 Best New Writer prize, called out Campbell to cheers from the audience:
“John W. Campbell, for whom this award was named, was a fucking fascist. Through his editorial control of Astounding Science Fiction, he is responsible for setting a tone of science fiction that still haunts the genre to this day. Sterile. Male. White. Exalting in the ambitions of imperialists and colonisers, settlers and industrialists. Yes, I am aware there are exceptions.”
As we seek to tell the story of science fiction fandom in the 1930s and 1940s, repugnant attitudes among early fans and professionals are impossible to miss, should not be missed, and should not be dismissed or ignored. By documenting this period in what some might deem a celebratory way, we’re in no sense endorsing these views — nor will we shy away from them.
Through our research, we have an opportunity to share insight into Campbell’s life prior to his work at Astounding. The letter presented here in full was penned by Campbell on May 15 1937, several months before he was hired as an editor. The recipient, Robert D. Swisher, was himself a research chemist and early science fiction fan. Swisher and Campbell corresponded regularly through the 1930s and 40s. It’s presented here by expressed permission from Perry A. Chapdelaine Sr., who acquired the letter from the Campbell estate. The San Diego State University watermark isn’t original to the letter — it’s an artifact of the archive where many of Campbell’s letters are physically stored. We appreciate the assistance of Alec Nevala-Lee and Doug Ellis in sourcing and establishing the provenance of this document.
Notes and my perspective on the content of the letter follows each page. Click the individual pages to view them in full resolution.
The vital role played by Mort Weisinger in launching Capmbell’s career as an editor demonstrates the vivid connection between fandom and the pros. Fanzines such as Weisinger’s Science Fiction Digest and Charles D. Hornig’s The Fantasy Fan served as the Grapefruit League for the draft class of professional editors recruited by the pulps in the mid 1930s. Weisinger’s relationship with Campbell was further brought to life by Julius Schwartz in an interview with John L. Coker III:
Before he became an editor, John W. Campbell used to write science fiction, what is referred to today as hard science fiction, much in the vein of “Doc” Smith stories. He tried to broaden his market, so he submitted stories to Mort Weisinger, but Mort rejected them. Finally, Campbell says, “Mort, what is wrong with my stories? Why aren’t I writing the type of stories you’re looking for?” Mort says, “You’re writing the type of scientific stories that I don’t want to bore the readers with. I want you to get to where you’re going, tell an exciting adventure story, and don’t load it down with too much science fact.” Campbell says, “I’d like to take a chance on it. Can you give me an idea what style I should use?” So Mort says, “My favorite writer is Stanley G. Weinbaum.” They were human interest stories. They were believable. Campbell read the stories of Stanley G. Weinbaum, and he submitted a story and Mort bought it. Campbell was very happy and he started writing a series of stories along the same line.
The issue came out with the first story in it, and Campbell went up to see Mort. Campbell says, “Mort, what did you do to the story that appears in the current issue?” Mort says, “I’m an editor, I get paid to edit, so I edited it.” Campbell says, “Does that mean you can change the title of a story of a script that I sell you?” Mort says, “Of course, if I don’t like the title I change it to a title that I like, or something that I think will appeal to my young readers.” Campbell said, “You mean you can take the title of a story you bought and change the title?” Mort said, “Yeah, didn’t you look at the back of the check? It says we can edit and make it suitable for publication.” Mort said, “I cut out the dull parts and got into the action.” I don’t remember the title of the story that Campbell had, but Mort changed it to “The Brain Stealers of Mars.” Any young person must read a story entitled “The Brain Stealers of Mars,” even a few of you adults would want to read a story like that. [Campbell’s original title was ‘Imitation.’ We have to agree that Weisinger’s title is a more likely hook. – dhr]
Campbell said, “I didn’t know you could do that. Let me ask you a few more questions. Why did you change so much of my copy?” Mort says, “John, I told you that I didn’t want to be burdened with your science facts. Get to Mars, don’t tell me how much oxygen there is or isn’t. Let’s get to the story and the damsel in distress. Let everything roll. Get the action going. So, I put that stuff in there for you. I have to do it. Leo Margulies, the editorial director, looks over all our scripts to make sure we’re earning our money, so there’s plenty of rewriting.”
Mort asked him if he had any other problems he wanted to hit him with. Campbell said, “I don’t think that it was the world’s greatest illustration. Those stories had illustrations to excite the reader to read it.” Campbell asked, “How is the selection made for the artist to draw?” Mort said, “I give the artist the story to read, pick out an exciting scene. I will write a description and give it to the artist, and he will draw the story as I instruct him to do.”
Campbell asked Mort, “After you edit the story, and make all the corrections, what do you do with it?” He said, “Send it to the printer so he can set it up in linotype. When we get it back we proof-read it for typographical errors.” Campbell said, “I know your magazine has one hundred sixty pages. How do you make it come out even?” Mort said, “That’s the easiest part of all. All you have to do is put in all of the stories and ads for one hundred fifty two pages, then put in eight pages of letters, and you get one hundred sixty pages.”
John W. Campbell patted Mort Weisinger on the shoulder and said, “I want to thank you very much for these instructions, and I want you to be the first to know. I’ve just been made the editor of Astounding Stories and I didn’t know what an editor does. Thanks to you, I know.”
I told that story when Fred Pohl was present and he said, “No, that’s not true. Mort told a lie. All John W. Campbell did was go to Leo Margulies and Margulies told him exactly what to do.”
Campbell’s letter appears to support Schwartz’s version of events.
The current intense discussion of Campbell’s definitive influence and his deep personal flaws should continue. We hope this contribution adds to the beautiful bonfire.
I’ll say at the start that this is about as obscure as it gets in spelunking fan history. Sometimes we have to ask ourselves if we’re exploring the fringe of the fringe of the fringe, and if anybody will care. We’re sitting in a metaphorical hole in an allegorical desert with an analogous toothbrush, attempting to discern if the illustrative grey lump we’re delicately brushing at is an ancient pot… or an ancestor’s bone… or… ya, crap… it’s just a rock. In this case, we think what we’ve unearthed is at least a pretty cool rock.
If you subscribed to Fantasy Magazine in 1934 and anxiously tore open the February issue that had just landed in your mailbox, you might have been excited to see that it included the next chapter of Cosmos, the ambitious serial novel orchestrated by Raymond A. Palmer and the staff. This installment was number nine of seventeen, penned by Abner J. Gelula. Menace of the Automoton revealed the rise of a race of domineering robots on Earth. It drew its heritage from Gelula’s first published story, Automoton, that appeared in the November 1931 issue of Amazing Stories.
This whole Cosmos thing was a pretty remarkable stunt for the mostly-teenaged editors to pull off. The relationships they established with professional writers through this effort would serve them well later in life. But getting it done wasn’t easy. They weren’t paying for the chapters, and some of the authors didn’t meet their commitments. For example, in the December 1933 issue of Science Fiction Digest, Palmer announced:
“With this writing comes the sad word that Miles J. Breuer is confined to a sanatarium, with a nervous breakdown from overwork. This means that the doctor, loved by all science fiction fans, will not be able to write his part for COSMOS. This is certainly a great loss to the super-serial COSMOS, and to us, who love his writings, and we will have no time to replace him with a writer equaling him in reputation, but we have secured the services of Miss Rae Winters, who wrote “The Girl from Venus” and its sequel, which you will read in this magazine in the near future. Miss Rae Winters shows extreme promise and I am sure she will develop into a fine writer.“
“Miss Rae Winters” was unsurprisingly a pseudonym for Palmer himself. He’d stepped in to write the chapter that perhaps had driven Breuer to madness. A great risk and sacrifice! And a shameless self-promotion.
Anyway. If you read the rest of the February 1934 issue, you’d eventually come to page 30 and the regular column titled “The Editor Broadcasts.” This was ostensibly penned by Conrad H. Ruppert, but could have been written by anyone on the staff. Oddly, the first paragraph of the column was crudely redacted in black ink.
A mystery! Something had occurred between printing and publication that simply had to be erased. The few tantalizing letters visible at the end weren’t enough to give even a hint.
We’re delighted and relieved to report that this troubling gap in the historical record has now been plugged. In a copy of this issue bound into a volume for Palmer, we see a version of this page where the redaction is transparent enough to allow it to be read.
If you don’t want to squint, it says:
“For some unexplained reason Abner J. Gelula failed to send in his chapter to COSMOS. Repeated letters and postcards have brought forth no reply. We are very sorry that our readers must again be disappointed and trust that you will enjoy Wallace Wray Quitman’s offering, which is being introduced in place of the part originally scheduled for Mr. Gelula.”
We can only guess that the promised chapter arrived just in time to be printed separately and bound with the issue. We can also surmise the identity of “Wallace Wray Quitman.” If Palmer ever actually wrote the replacement chapter, it has likely been lost to history. If it turns up, we’ll be sure to share it.
First Fandom Experience is an archive wrapped in a story. Our goal with this project is to tell a complete and unbiased history of science fiction fandom, primarily using the original artifacts created by the pioneering fans of the 1920s-1940s. These artifacts are a product of their time and, uncensored, they reflect the attitudes and beliefs of the people who created them and the society in which they lived.
Science fiction is inherently progressive, and to a large degree so are its fans. However, there are in this history statements and views expressed by some fans that are objectionable. The period that we cover in this work is marked by racism, sexism, misogyny, anti-Semitism and other bigotries that were ignorant then — but sadly often tolerated — and are properly seen as offensive today. Recent attention has been given to this issue by Jeannette Ng in her acceptance speech for what is now called the Astounding Award for Best New Writer.
As historians, we make no attempt to shy away from or cover up these views, nor do we make any attempt to justify or rationalize them. They are part of the story. It’s beyond the scope of this project to address these issues generally, but we aim to discuss them openly as they relate to early fandom. We will do our best to contextualize manifestations as they present themselves, and we will dedicate space in the project to deeper exploration of relevant examples.
Above all, this is a conversation we want to keep going with our audience of interested fans and historians. We encourage anyone to connect with us about our coverage, or lack thereof, of these topics.
This post is work-in-progress. We’re developing this content for inclusion an upcoming volume of The Visual History of Science Fiction Fandom. Feedback and leads on additional material pertinent to the Second Eastern Con are much appreciated!
The second-ever “science fiction convention” in the United States occurred on February 21, 1937 in New York City. There is of course the endless debate about what really constituted a “convention” versus just a gathering of fans. The “First Eastern Con” occurred in October 1936 in Philadelphia. It was an informal afternoon attended by perhaps a dozen fans from the East Coast, from which there are no known printed artifacts. The idea for a more formal get-together in New York was hatched at that meeting.
The planned New York gathering claimed the lofty “convention” moniker and was organized by the core of the New York Branch of The International Scientific Association (NYBISA). This cadre — Donald A. Wollheim, John B. Michel, David A. Kyle and Fredrik G. Pohl — would play central roles in the drama and shenanigans surrounding science fiction clubs and confabs for the next several years.
The program for the convention is a small, delicate leaflet, elegant if terse.
Songs? Indeed, songs. As remembered by Robert A. Madle in a conversation with John L. Coker III:
“The ISA had a bunch of songs, and one went like this:
Oh, we’ll rally from the nuthouse, We’ll gather from the cell, Shouting an accolade to Gernsback. To cheer for dear old Wonder And the good old SFL, Shouting an accolade to Gernsback. The SFL forever, let rockets light her way, Shouting an accolade to Gernsback. With C.D.H. to lead us Through commentary hell, Shouting an accolade to Gernsback.
Many of the ISA members hated anyone who was connected with Wonder Stories, including Charles D. Hornig. There were a lot of other people that they had picturesque names for. They referred to Forry Ackerman as Farwest J Sapperman, Sam Moskowitz as The Newark Neanderthal, James Taurasi was Il Duce of Flushing Flats, and The Philadelphia Science Fiction Society was known as the PSFS Hoodlums.”
Who was there on that somewhat musical day? We have one remarkable survival that gives us some evidence. The first issue of the fanzine Phantastique was produced by Burton duMont with a cover date of November 1936. The issue was actually distributed in January 1937, just in time for the convention. Our best guess is that someone brought a copy of this issue to the meeting and had it signed by many of the attendees.
This is the earliest collection of fan signatures that we’ve seen. Here are the names we’ve been able to decipher (top-to-bottom, left-to-right):
Arthur Leeds Morris Chakamsky Robert W. Lowndes Conrad H. Ruppert Charles D. Hornig X-ED (ex-editor?) John J. Weir Mort Weisinger George R. Hahn (Curly) Warren D. Woolsey Willis Conover, Jr. Richard Wilson, Jr. John B. Michel John V. Baltadonis Walter Kubilius ISA Robert A. Madle Otto O. Binder Julius Schwartz Charles Schneeman John V. Baltadonis (again)
Comparing this roster to the Second Eastern Convention attendee list from Fancyclopedia, there’s clear overlap and no obvious conflicts that would cause us to reconsider the origin of this piece. We’d be very interested to hear any other interpretations or evidence.
Sad to say, it appears that the “proposed NYBISA Science Fiction Motion Picture” was never produced.