1. On a side street in Van Nuys is a building painted a pale shade of yellow with a sign that says DE PROFUNDIS AD ASTRA — “from the depths to the stars.” Spelled in larger letters is the name of the 79-year-old club: the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society.
This is the organization’s third clubhouse, and, consensus holds, its nicest, although members of the club complained that the street had limited parking.
2. The clubhouse faces a hulking power relay station whose transformers and beams evoke the tomorrow of yesterday.
3. While I was outside taking a photo of the mailbox, a woman with dark purple-tinged hair and large clear glasses opened the front door and told me she was Michelle Pincus. We’d spoken on the phone (she’s the registrar).
She led me into the fluorescent light of the club, whose acronym she pronounced loss-fiss.
4. Pincus took me to a courtyard called the Null Space after Bob Null. She referred to the dead man as an “animationally challenged member.”
Before we went out to the courtyard, she chuckled and said, “You have to understand, death does not release you,” and she gestured to the resting place of Charles William Rotsler’s ashes; the club keeps his brass urn in a glass cabinet.
“Some of us are closer to each other than we are to our actual family,” said the club’s president, Eylat Poliner. (For Poliner, LASFS became actual family — later Poliner introduced me to her husband of 16 years, and when she said they did not meet in the club, Mark said, “We did meet in the club. Yes, dear, we did.”)
In the Null Space, Pincus told me a story about the lemon tree she was standing next to, and Charles Lee Jackson II came out into the courtyard and told her he was going home and skipping the weekly Thursday meeting because of some controversy related to soap. He walked back inside in a huff, but he stayed for the whole evening.
5. The club has a lending library (and a 25-cent fine for each week a book is late); the library does double duty as “Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon,” which, I am told, is a reference to a Spider Robinson novel.
The head librarian’s name Warren Johnson, but here he is Whisky (“If you’re gonna spell Whisky, make sure you spell it the Scotch way without the ‘e,’” Pincus told me in the library). Later that night, Whisky poured out glasses of beer for the people hanging around his desk in the library.
6. Johnson explained that taking the library position was strategic. “I’ll never get dragged into (higher office),” he said, facing president Poliner.
7. Poliner told me the lending library has over 23,000 items.
Ray Bradbury’s work is also represented in the collection, and, Pincus notes, he was a member of the club and “wouldn’t be the Ray Bradbury you know” without it. “He was this obnoxious teenager,” she said to me, and I would later hear her say the same sentence to a young-looking man with a bald head. I overheard her tell the same man about her own science fiction and fantasy writing, which she’d refused to talk about earlier.
“I’m only going to subject the world to my stuff if I know it’s good,” she said to him.
8. Old members are everywhere in photos. Michael “Scratch” Galloway (called Scratch, he said, because there are too many Michaels) said the woman in the bottom left corner made that costume in 45 minutes.
9. When the library has more than one copy of a book, the extras go on this shelf by the entrance. Charges for the books are “on the honor system,” both Poliner and Pincus tell me.
Fifty cents for a paperback. One dollar for a trade paperback, $2 for hardcovers, picture books, graphic novels, and large books, and 10 cents for zines.
10. In the display cabinet are the artifacts of the club’s almost 80-year history. Here, member badges, to the right of Rotsler’s urn.
11. Photographs of members both famous and half-forgotten crowd the shelves of the cabinet (as I ask questions, Poliner determines that she and the club historian will go through the items in the case and label them).
Pictured in blue is Bjo Trimble, who organized a massive letter-writing campaign that kept the original Star Trek from being canceled after its second season (it was canceled after its third).
12. The cabinet is where the club keeps its members’ Hugo Awards.
13. Marc Schirmeister left in the middle of an argument about the relative merits of the Los Angeles and New York Times to draw this “reptilian hexiped” for me.
Largely for his own amusement, Schirmeister is working on a web comic about a man who wins an inhabited planet in a poker game. When he joined the club in 1973, he wasn’t much of a cartoonist, he said, but “fandom was much more accepting, and it gave me the excuse to sit down and try to get better.”
“It gave me an excuse to draw, a reason to draw.”
Schirmeister was an animator for 20 years, he said, because of LASFS.
14. “It’s basically like a cocktail party in print,” Marty Cantor said of the APA publication — “Amateur Press Association.” “If you read what we write about each other, you’re gonna think we’re gonna kill each other.”
This is why the weekly zine is distributed only in hard copies to members.
He told me there’s a Catholic member he’s been trying to get to write “scientific proof that there’s an existence of this creature known as god. He keeps dragging these red herrings back and forth.”
15. Pincus walked me over to some younger members. “Doctor Who,” the girl said immediately when I asked what they’re interested in.
Jeromy and Kristina Miller are 16 and 15, respectively; they have been attending monthly Time Meddlers meetings for two years to talk about Doctor Who with the like-minded. Jeromy is starting a sci-fi club at his school.
I asked if they had interests other than Doctor Who, and Jeromy said “the books” (Neuromancer, Farenheit 451, Dune). Kristina said, “This might sound terrible, but just, Matt Smith.”
Anna, Poliner’s daughter, walked in and asked Kristina for advice about middle school. Kristina told her to hope Ms. Tanaka was her science teacher. “She gave me her old lightsaber,” she said. She also told Anna not to tell anyone her locker combination.
“Duh,” Anna said.
Galloway walked over and stole some of Kristina’s fries.
When the science fiction writer Larry Niven walked in, he said we should probably close the door so as not to let the cat out. I said, “There’s a cat?”
He grinned and said, “In fact, there is no cat.”
16. Pincus, who is a board member and the head of marketing at LASFS, was eager for me to speak to published writers. She introduced me to S.P. Hendrick, who had bright red hair.
“My two favorite words in the English language: ‘What if?’” she said. “What would have happened if Henry VIII’s brother hadn’t died?”
“Maybe there never would have been Protestantism,” Hendrick concluded.
Hendrick described one of her book series to me, the Glastonbury Chronicles: “It’s basically the story of the sacred king and his different incarnations.”
“She likes to kill her characters off,” said her husband.
“I kill the same characters off in every novel,” she tells me.
“They reincarnate,” he explains.
17. Charles Lee Jackson II is “a little sloppy about genre specificity.”
Jackson is a writer, but he’s also particularly interested in cliffhanger serial films made between 1933 and 1962. “The last, about 25 years ago…” he said, “It’s too recent, and too many people know about it.”
Jackson described a story he wrote that was a Western set in the 1920s with ray guns and a zeppelin to demonstrate his genre-mixing. “I’ve been a writer for 45 years,” he said to me.
“Well I hate to tell you, but she’s got 46,” said S.P. Hendrick’s husband.
18. Richard Foss is a food historian who loves “alternate history,” he said. He doesn’t have a special degree in food history, but “25 years of being obsessed with something, you’d be amazed what you can learn about it.”
Foss said he’s been a LASFS member for around 35 years. “In the pre-Star Wars days, if you were a science fiction fan, there were not that many people who read the things you read.”
“These are my people — other people who think books are important.”
He is currently working on an article about rum-based sweets. “Oddly enough, I don’t like sweets, but I’m happy to write about them,” he said.
19. I first met Frank Waller in the kitchen, where he did an excellent Igor “yes, master” and then grabbed his head and made a honking noise. He was wearing this Star Wars bear around his neck.
He joined LASFS in 1986, introduced by an old girlfriend. When they finally broke up, he spent five years “in the front row of the Laugh Factory to get my sense of humor back.” He doesn’t see her around anymore, but she was never as invested in the club as he was, anyway.
“It’s one big happy family of people that have a little bit something wrong with them,” he said.
20. Waller showed a first-timer the video collection.
21. Waller told me he did not pose for this book.
22. Of nine photos, this was the only one of Tim Trzepacz that wasn’t blurry.
He spelled his Polish name for me more than once, and told me that after the Berlin Wall fell he “figured out I had to learn how to pronounce my own damn name.” Trzepacz told me he sometimes wonders why he keeps coming to meetings, but, “It’s Thursday, you don’t know what you’re gonna do, and you know you’re gonna find friends here who share your interests.” (He told me he didn’t really come for the meetings, which he warned me were boring. Stay out here where people are socializing, he said.)
He was wearing a Star Trek T-shirt, and he works in programming, mostly for video games.
23. After I talked to an amateur paleontologist named Albert Sheean, a man with long dark hair and green shoes told me he was known as the Hare, but his full fan name was His Dyslexcellency of Grahillia.
“I don’t consider my education to have started until I discovered science fiction and LASFS,” he said. He told me he was autistic and dyslexic and graduated high school with a second-grade reading level — the club changed his life.
24. John DeChancie didn’t want to be photographed, but he showed me where his books were in the library.
I asked him what he gets out of the club, and he sighed and said, “Oh, I ask myself that question.”
He used to belong to the Time Meddlers. “I wouldn’t call myself a Whovian,” he said. “I was only going because a girlfriend of mine was very enthusiastic.” (They met at the World Science Fiction Convention, he specified, not LASFS.)
He said, “You know this is a literary club, right?”
Yes, I suppose.
It used to be “the books were it,” he explained. “It’s all fragmented; it’s not monolithic anymore.”
25. Aldo Spadoni was wearing a Hawaiian shirt and a manicured black beard when he gave his presentation on designs he’s done for science fiction novels.
Mostly his designs were of spacecraft, but he also worked on a project involving hyper-intelligent dolphins.
“The dolphins are no different from the rest of us,” he said. “They want their jet packs, too.”
26. During the presentation (“program,” as members called it), almost every time I looked over at Galloway, he was rubbing this woman’s shoulders.
Galloway said he was one of the original developers of Dungeons and Dragons, which teaches “abstract thought, group problem-solving, which is teamwork, and patience.”
27. After the meeting, Poliner and Galloway opened up the display case and handed me some of the items, including this cup.
Poliner held up a drawing Tim Powers did on a paper placemat; Pincus looked at the drawing and said, “I let him know that the next one, I get to take.”
28. Galloway held up the photo of a robot suit from a movie whose name neither he nor Poliner could recall. Galloway’s hand was shaking, and Poliner held one side of the frame to steady it (“Don’t ever have a stroke,” he told me again).
29. At the end of the night when we walked outside, the sign was lit.
They don’t have the money, Poliner said, to finish the right side of the sign.
Standing in the glow on the sidewalk, two younger people started talking to me. It was his first time at the meeting — she brought him — but she said she’d been a few times. “Six times,” she said, and he looked surprised.
That’s more than a few times, he said.
CORRECTION: The science fiction writer is named Charles Lee Jackson II. An earlier version of this story misstated his name. (8/18/13)