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Geeks With Books
by Rick Klaw

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AggieCon
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A Religious Experience

March was the thirty-fifth anniversary of AggieCon1, the oldest continuous science fiction convention in Texas. I don't think anyone noticed. I was there and I barely noticed. While last year's thirtieth anniversary ArmadilloCon2 gala hosted special guests, parties, and the like, AggieCon had just one panel celebrating the anniversary. Not another word about it was mentioned. The whole event accentuated the differences between Texas' two premiere science fiction events.

Weird Tales I first started attending AggieCon eight years ago. At that show, I met Michael Moorcock and talked Joe R. Lansdale into contributing a story to my monster anthology Creature Features. That same year, I was a guest at my third ArmadilloCon. I remember having a good time, but not much else. If you had asked me to assess the shows then, I would have said just the opposite.

During the past eight years and after several leadership changes, ArmadilloCon has asserted itself as the foremost Texas SF convention. AggieCon has lost a majority of its funding3 and is currently under new management.4 Whenever new blood comes in, there is a period of adjustment. I'm sure things will smooth out, but currently it's a bit bumpy. Panels, registration, and all the other little things are not running as smoothly while the new administration attempts to re-invent the wheel.

Not that the entire weekend was dud. I got to hang out with some old friends, see some familiar faces, and hopefully make some new fans. I found a copy of Irwin Porges' Edgar Rice Burroughs: The Man Who Created Tarzan.5 And there was a religious experience.

This would be a shocking statement to some. I'm not what you would call spiritual. More of a wysiwyg6, a meat and potatoes fellow.

I first met Hal Hall a few years back at another AggieCon. For the past year, we emailed back and forth a few dozen times about a variety of subjects. Hal has the ultimate science fiction geek job: curator of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Research Collection at the Cushing Memorial Library at Texas A&M University. The Cushing is home to one of the largest science fiction collections in the world. Luckily for me, Hal deemed me worthy of a tour.

Argosy

The first thing that struck me upon entering the Cushing was not science fiction but rather several large glass cases holding an impressive looking collection of Walt Whitman books. I'm not a big fan of Whitman, but anyone with an interest in books can't help but admire a first edition of Leaves of Grass. For the curious out there, the first of Whitman's masterpieces is an oversized tome bound in what appears to be leather. At least that's what I could see with my face pressed against the glass. It wouldn't be the last time that afternoon that I felt like the dog drooling over a bone he couldn't get.

Hal Hall's office Hal pried me away from the cases and into his office. The curator's office was exactly how I'd imagined it. Piles of paper on the desk and overflowing out of boxes. A computer with a large monitor in front of his comfy chair. The walls lined with bookcases with some of the finest genre reference I'd ever seen. Really made me feel like an amateur. What I wouldn't do for some of those books. Then I noticed the one bookcase with nothing but leather bound Louis L'Amour book club titles. As part of Hal's job, he has to research some western fiction as well, and is compiling a guide to all of L'Amour's characters. With something in the neighborhood of hundred titles, that is a daunting task.

After some idle chatter7, Hal walked me through the reading room on the way to the collection. He is very proud of the room. He should be. A few years back, they restored the room to its original 1930 state. One of the wooden tables is an antique from that room while all the others are modeled after it. Even the chairs are exact replicas featuring the Texas A&M seal from 1930. (Back then it was just a college, not the major university it is now.) The corniced ceiling was cleaned and polished back to its original color and state. Around the entrance to the reading room is an ornate, art nouveau-inspired iron gate from the original design of the Cushing. It was found leaning against a wall in a campus storeroom and was on the verge of being sold when Hal recovered it.

The science fiction collection holds 45,000 total pieces and 24,900 monographs and miscellaneous other stuff (including a large selection of Star Trek memorabilia). For purposes of the collection, Hal defines science fiction as "anything that relates to the genre or the authors."

Amazing The enormity of it really became evident when Hal unveils the first of ten aisles of books. Seven-foot-high shelves side by side for fifteen feet or so. Every shelf was stuffed. There was complete or nearly complete runs of Philip K. Dick, Arkham House, Weird Tales, Amazing, Astounding, Argosy, and H. Rider Haggard. They have 95% of every American and 85% of UK SF/horror magazines since 1926, and a whole host of other cool things. My little geek mind was blown.

Hal stopped and handed me a book. "Here, look at this." My eyes got wide. It was a 19th century illustrated edition of Frankenstein! Turns out it was the third printing and the first illustrated edition. WOW!

Then we got to the really cool stuff. Rows of nothing but white, acid-free boxes full of manuscripts, letters, and papers. The goal of the collection is to preserve an author's work. The names on the boxes read like a who's who of genre fiction. Poul Anderson, Piers Anthony, Isaac Asimov, Gregory Benford, Robert Bloch, Ray Bradbury, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Bill Crider, Lord Dunsay, Steve Gould, Robert Heinlein, Joe R. Lansdale, Ursula K. Le Guin, Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock, Frederik Pohl, A. E. Van Vogt, Howard Waldrop, Martha Wells, Jack Williamson, Gene Wolfe, John Wyndham and others.

A few of the collections deserve special mention.
The Cushing is the archival home for the works of George R.R. Martin. Every manuscript, letter, treatment, etc. is stored there. As soon as Martin writes anything he sends a copy to the library.
A comprehensive William Gibson collection including his correspondences with his agent Martha Millard.
All of Roy Craig's papers relative to his non-fiction book The Condon Report, based on The Colorado Project, America's largest and most systematic study of UFOs. He was the study's chief field investigator.
Three years of letters between August Derleth and Donald Wandrei during the early years of Arkham House.
The most extensive Chad Oliver8 collection in the world. Hal Hall was one of the leading proponents for the recent Oliver publications from NESFA.
A very large collection of Sam Moskowitz9 papers, manuscript files, and even an unpublished manuscript. Most of Moskowitz's correspondences are included except stuff relating to the Futurians10. According to Hal, the writers themselves removed those letters out of fear of possible embarrassment. (Makes me want to see them now.) Thanks to Moskowitz's papers, Hal was able to correct the Oxford English Dictionary entry on "fanzine".

All this and more in about one hour. Hal had another commitment, but he promised to show me more next time.

Before it was over, I discovered that Hal was missing the two Mojo Press Moorcock books that I edited.

"If you've got an extra copy, we can buy or trade for it."

My eyes must have been as big as saucers. "Trade?!?!"

"Yeah. We keep a selection of duplicates that we trade with other libraries and such." He showed me two large bays of books that are for trade. "A paperback for a paperback and hardback for a hardback." Even now, I have to wipe the drool from my mouth. Perhaps I won't wait until next year's AggieCon to visit again.


1On the Texas A&M campus in College Station, TX.

2In Austin, TX

3Until this year, the convention received most of its funding from the university. Thanks to budget cuts, there will be no more money for the group running the convention.

4Since AggieCon is completely student-managed, there is a turn over roughly every four years of AggieCon management. Some transfers are smoother than others.

5One of the essential books on ERB along with Edgar Rice Burroughs: Master of Adventure by Richard Lupoff and Tarzan Forever by John Taliaferro.

<6>What you see is what you get.

7Which I found easy. Hal is an intelligent, thoughtful geek. I could literally sit and chat with him all day long. We even had a great discussion about apes. Imagine that!

8A graduate of Texas A&M and a very popular professor at The University of Texas (so popular that the Humanities Plan II scholarship is named after him), Oliver wrote the first anthropological science fiction and was a seminal influence on most of the current crop of Texas SF writers.

9One of the earliest SF historians and beginning in 1936, a prominent member of fandom.

10A New York SF group active between 1938-1945 that included Isaac Asimov, Fredrik Pohl, James Blish, and others. The group was know for their radical politics.

Copyright © 2004 Rick Klaw

Not content with just being a regular columnist for SF Site, Rick Klaw decided to collect his columns, essays, reviews, and other things Klaw in Geek Confidential: Echoes From the 21st Century (currently available from Monkey Brains, Inc). As a freelance editor, former book buyer, managing editor, and bookstore manager, Rick has experience with most aspects of the book business. Since visiting the Cushing Library, Rick has been suffering from feelings of inadequacy.


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