Tate Williams

Mad Scientist Club

Tate Williams September 3, 2014
Students in MIT Science Fiction Society reading room, photograph

In an otherwise unremarkable room at MIT, the published history of science fiction overflows.

Originally published in The Magazine, June 19, 2014. 

By Tate Williams

Decades before Guy Consolmagno had an asteroid named after him in honor of his contributions to planetary science, he was a directionless history major at Boston College. Then he saw what MIT was keeping in a room of the student center. He knew he had to transfer.

It wasn’t MIT’s research on meteoroids and asteroids, or its contributions to NASA lunar missions, or even the early stages of what would become the Internet, though all of this was happening on the Cambridge campus around 1970. Rather, it was a bunch of novels. Thousands and thousands of science fiction novels.

Founded in 1949, the MIT Science Fiction Society (MITSFS, pronounced “mitsfiss”) had been hoarding sci-fi and fantasy — hardcovers, paperbacks, comics, and sprawling sets of pulp magazines dating back to the 1920s — with a ferocity of attention you’d expect only from a group of young people with an abnormal thirst for systems, organization, and genre fiction.

“I went there mostly to read science fiction, and to hang out in the science fiction club, and to be part of that whole dream,” says Consolmagno, a Jesuit brother, who went on to an esteemed career as an astronomer with the Vatican Observatory.

As stunning as it must have been back then, this was actually relatively early in the days of the MITSFS library. Today the library is much bigger, driven by the society’s goal of acquiring every published sci-fi and fantasy novel in existence. They are close.

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Astounding Science-Fiction

The MITSFS Library has 61,380 books at last count, most of which are crammed into the stacks of the nondescript Room 473 in the student center. (A small marker-drawn sign declares simply “MITSFS” above the room number.) That count does not include the pulp magazine collection, one of its most impressive features, featuring runs of classic periodicals like Amazing StoriesWeird Tales, and Astounding Science-Fiction (which later became Analog Science Fiction and Fact), many in complete or nearly complete sets.

Operated entirely by students and volunteers, MITSFS boasts the largest open-shelf science fiction library in existence. At one point, the group estimated that it had amassed more than 90 percent of all published science fiction and fantasy, although it acknowledges that that number has likely slipped with the growth of self-publishing.

While there’s no official ranking, MITSFS is very likely within the top five publicly accessible sci-fi collections in the world based on number of books alone. The larger collections are mostly non-circulating academic or reference libraries, as opposed to what is basically a hobby-gone-berserk for 20 or so college students. While some of the very rare and valuable books are locked away, most at MITSFS can be checked out.

Walking into the room for the first time, it’s easy to understand Consolmagno’s reaction. Even for those with little attachment to the genre, the collection is staggering. Books line the walls, mostly floor to ceiling, crammed into configurations that would make a credentialed librarian shudder. Books teeter on the edges of shelves, facing out where there’s no more room. Along one wall run chest-high stacks of bankers boxes, full of donated books that the club will have to reckon with.

“They keep publishing more books. They don’t keep giving us more space, which is unfortunate,” says club president D.W. Rowlands, a physical chemist who works with silicon surfaces but happens to have a name perfectly suited for science fiction. “This is much denser than the American Library Association would ever expect a professional library to be.” But visiting is an altogether different experience if you’re a science fiction or fantasy fan. (I absolutely am one, though my dedication pales in comparison to that of MITSFS.)

“The first impression is just overwhelming, right?” says Jade Wang, a former president who still volunteers at MITSFS weekly. She’s not the longest-running volunteer librarian, or “keyholder.” That would be Jack Stevens, who has been volunteering for more than 40 years.

“Growing up, you read series, and you’re like, okay, my library only has the second book and the fifth book,” says Wang, now a research scientist at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory. “And now here’s a library that has them all.” Indeed, for a fan and especially a collector, seeing the MITSFS library elicits something like a tingling lightheadedness.

This is it, you think. All of it. It is all right here. And I am never leaving.

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Alien Worlds

MITSFS’s transformation from a small student club to an authoritative library was made possible, maybe inevitable, by events that occurred long before its founding. In the 1920s, science fiction coalesced into a separate genre that inextricably connected writers, fans, and collectors. There’s a lot of argument over the origins of sci-fi, but in this era pulp magazines began to appear widely on newsstands, combining loose concepts of the day’s science with high tales of adventure. Authors like Ray Cummings and Edgar Rice Burroughs churned out tales of interstellar space cars, steamy Venusian jungles, and bug-eyed aliens of Jupiter.

From the beginning, amateur involvement and fan interaction were at the heart of the genre. According to Amy Spencer’s book DIY: The Rise of Lo-Fi Culture, Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories was the first sci-fi magazine to publish a letters section that included the names and addresses of fans. This led to a rapidly spreading network of societies and devoted readers exchanging ideas and stories by mail, which eventually led to fan-published magazines, or fanzines. One sci-fi society alone, the New York-basedFuturians, produced legendary authors Cyril Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl.

In 1949, a group was formed at MIT by an undergrad named Rudolf Preisendorfer, who had a complete collection of Astounding Science-Fiction, one of the favorite titles of the time. According to a history of MITSFS published in 1983 in the journal Science/Fiction Collections, the group decided to preserve the entire run of back issues on microfilm. It was slow going, but throughout the 1950s, members met regularly to watch movies and hear guest speakers such as Isaac Asimov and Hugo Gernsback. In fact, Asimov even attended the group’s annual picnic for years. At the time, MITSFS kept only a small collection of books, in a wooden crate; the crate still sits in the library today.

But things really began to take shape in the 1960s, when the club gained a space in the student center and member Anthony Lewis nurtured the group’s bug for completing collections. “Collectors are fanatical. For me it was the feeling that the magazines, the ephemera, they could be lost,” Lewis says from his home in Natick, Massachusetts. He’s now 73 and retired from a career first as a NASA physicist and later as a technical writer.

Lewis started an effort 50 years ago to gather up the back issues of every science fiction magazine. This foundation for the library’s magazine collection still sits — cheap paper now yellowed and brittle — on shelves along one wall. “I don’t like the idea of information being lost,” Lewis says.

Through 1967, Lewis held the role of librarian, and the mission of MITSFS began to drift toward the collection. Members raided bookstores in Boston and New York in search of rare finds, binding them like encyclopedia sets as they were completed. Membership grew as more students wanted access to the library. In 1965, the group started receiving funds from the Student Activities Council, and between MIT support and membership dues, they grew a decent little budget.

The dedication of members during these years laid the groundwork for the library that would keep the Society vital. MITSFS member Marilyn Wisowaty (who later married Ringworld author Larry Niven) created what became known as Pinkdex (her nickname was “Fuzzy Pink,” for a sweater she used to wear), a catalog of the library on IBM punch cards. Pinkdex is still the name for the catalog, which is now online.

When Marc Alpert arrived at MIT in 1967, the collection was in full swing, but he eventually set up an accounting system and shored up finances. “I got into the library because I’m essentially a librarian at heart,” says Alpert, a doctor. “The mechanics of it are what attracted me. That’s where I really excelled.”

That same year, Tony Lewis left with a PhD, but by then, the ball was rolling, and the purpose of MITSFS was to obtain all published science fiction and fantasy.

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Analog Fact and Fiction

The answer to exactly why different members became so deeply involved over the years varies, depending on whom you ask. But a devotion to science is often a strong factor. There is a long history of science and science fiction rubbing against each other, one bleeding into the other.

For example, Hal Clement’s Iceworld was the inspiration for Consolmagno’s first paper in the journalScience, on the sulfuric volcanoes of Jupiter’s moon Io, which were spotted by Voyager 1. Clement is thanked in the acknowledgments.

This kind of thing happens a lot. The helicopter, submarine, and liquid-fueled rocket were all inspired by early sci-fi. The acronym TASER stands for “Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle,” inspired by the Tom Swift books (MITSFS, of course, has all of them).

Science fiction wildly projects out what science takes a long, slow time to catch up with. It’s a sandbox in which to try out big ideas. At an institute that regularly cranks out little pieces of the future, the MIT science fiction library is like a repository of potential futures — still relevant, however silly they may sometimes seem.

“Sci Fi only becomes dated if it failed to see the human aspect when it was written,” emails Dan Novy. In the fall, Novy co-instructed the new MIT course Science Fiction to Science Fabrication with Sophia Brueckner, who created it for the Rhode Island School of Design. The course examines science fiction as it relates to current ideas in design and research.

“Almost all Sci Fi is about the present and about who we are now. The human condition changes slowly and therefore well-written stories that explore our humanity among a wonderful vista of ideas are still relevant hundreds of years later.”

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Weird Tales

Make no mistake: MITSFS is not all that serious. The society has developed hundreds of little inside jokes and obscure references that govern its daily activity. They use a giant wrench as a gavel to bring to order weekly meetings with no actual business. The library is littered with toy bananas, for reasons that even current president Rowlands isn’t sure of. In circulation is a plush dolphin signed by David Brin. And MITSFS is particularly proud that it once made the front page of Reddit with its review of Twilight.

The library is a sanctuary from seriousness, despite its rigor in so many things. “It’s like any kind of fun. It’s only fun if you do it right,” Consolmagno says.

Exactly what “doing it right” means in the long term is becoming trickier for MITSFS. As I talk to Rowlands, a chemistry PhD student who speaks in fast, thoughtful bursts, the term unsustainable comes to mind as he describes the incoming books. Space is an issue; money not as much, as the group receives student club support, dues from about 450 members, and even has a modest endowment.

You might think that rounding up more books would be the hard part, and it does take time, with at least five of the club’s dozens of committees ordering and otherwise processing additions. But that seems to be the least of MITSFS’s problems. As former members end up donating their personal collections, either for space or because they’ve ventured into that final great beyond, the club’s collection keeps growing. Self-publishing and ebooks also complicate things.

But 44 years after his first visit, Consolmagno — whom everyone calls, accurately, “Brother Guy” — is sure that whatever form MITSFS and its library takes next, the spirit is the important thing. “It’s a place where you can sit, and relax and read a book, and not be bothered if you don’t want to be bothered. It’s the comfy chair — surrounded by the books. To me, that’s still my idea of heaven.”

Top photo: Courtesy of MIT Libraries, Institute Archives and Special Collections, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Science Fiction Society records, AC 331, box 1. All rights reserved. All other photos by the author.

Tate Williams is a freelance writer based in Boston covering science, culture and the environment. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Curbed, the East Bay Express, the East Valley Tribune in Phoenix, and American Forests magazine. He’s the science editor at Inside Philanthropy, where he blogs regularly.

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