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Meeting Your Heroes: David Kyle

Tuesday, September 25th, 2012 | Posted by John ONeill

a-pictorial-history-of-science-fictionThere are a handful of people whom I credit with introducing me to science fiction.

The first was my classmate John MacMaster, who brought me two science fiction novels when I was bedridden for a few days in the seventh grade. The second was Jacques Sadoul, whose 2000 A.D.: Illustrations From the Golden Age of Science Fiction Pulps turned my early curiosity into a full-fledged obsession with early SF and fantasy magazines. The third was Isaac Asimov, whose pulp anthology Before the Golden Age and Foundation Trilogy thoroughly captured my young imagination.

The man who cemented that early interest, and who brought all my young obsessions together — monster movies, pulps, magazines, comics, Star Wars, and even Isaac Asimov — and showed me that they were all aspects of the rich branch of art and literature known as Science Fiction, was David Kyle.

He did this through two magnificent books that I read over and over again as I lay in bed much too late on school nights: A Pictorial History of Science Fiction (Hamlyn Publishing Group, 1977) and The Illustrated Book of Science Fiction Ideas & Dreams (Hamlyn, 1977).

Both books were very popular in the 70s, especially following the release of Star Wars and the surge of interest in all things science fiction. Deluxe oversize hardcovers copiously illustrated with pictures of early SF writers, pulp art, and numerous books cover and movie stills, they were immaculately designed and gorgeous to look at. But it was Kyle’s text that really drew me in. Here was a man who had been a part of science fiction since its earliest days — a Futurian who attended the first Worldcon in 1939 and a founder of Gnome Press in 1948 with Martin Greenberg — and who still spoke of it with wonder and deep appreciation.

It’s through Gnome Press that David made perhaps his most significant contribution to science fiction, publishing nearly a hundred of the most important books in the genre — including first editions of Robert A. Heinlein’s Sixth Column and Methuselah’s Children, The Coming of Conan and Conan the Conqueror by Robert E. Howard, I, Robot and Foundation by Isaac Asimov, Clifford D. Simak’s City, C.L. Moore’s Judgment Night and Shambleau and Others, Two Sought Adventure by Fritz Leiber, plus Arthur C. Clarke, Edward E. Smith, L. Ron Hubbard, Leigh Brackett, Murray Leinster, A. E. van Vogt, and many others. He kept the most important writers in the field in print at a time when they appeared only in magazines, and is directly responsible for introducing them to a whole new generation.

I first met David Kyle at the World Fantasy convention in 1984, in my home town of Ottawa, where I was able to shake his hand and say a few words of appreciation. But it was at Worldcon three weeks ago that I had a chance to talk with him at length, and really get to know one of the most important early writers and publishers in the industry. It was one of the highlights of the con for me.

the-illustrated-book-of-science-fiction-ideas-and-dreams[Click any of the images in this article for larger versions.]

To really comprehend why, I think you have to understand how his two books opened up the field for me. I didn’t know who David Kyle was when I read them — I’d never heard of the Futurians or Gnome Press, and the only convention I’d ever attended was Maplecon, held every year at the ancient and majestic Chateau Laurier in downtown Ottawa.

Kyle didn’t drag out his accomplishments to impress his readers, so I only learned how intimately involved he was with the history of American SF many years later.

What did come across on every page of A Pictorial History of Science Fiction and The Illustrated Book of Science Fiction Ideas & Dreams was Kyle’s enthusiasm and affection for the entire field, from H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine to Buck Rogers to 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Here was a man with an encyclopedic knowledge of the entire field and he communicated, at great length, across many chapters, a deep wonder and joy. It was the same wonder and joy I felt at the age of eleven as I discovered SF for the first time.

And now here was this knowledgeable man telling me in a very convincing manner that exploring the great works of science fiction — including dozens of movies, hundreds of novels, and thousands of magazines, short stories and comics — could encompass an entire lifetime of wonder and joy.

And he proved it page after page, with gorgeous pictorials of color art, vintage magazines, and countless 70s paperbacks assembled from his own very impressive collection.

You can see high-resolution page samples from both books here, hereherehere, and here.

When I saw David Kyle’s name on the guest list for Worldcon, I was excited about meeting him again, even though I knew my duties at the Black Gate booth would keep me away from programming. But when I saw this entry in the pocket program for Friday at 10:30 a.m., I knew I’d have to find some way to make it, even if it meant shutting down the booth:

The 1939 World Science Fiction Convention and New York World’s Fair
A look back at fannish history.
Panelists: John L. Coker, III, Erle Korshak, Dave Kyle

The 1939 World Science Fiction Convention panel, with Dave Kyle, Erle Korshak, and John L. Coker III

The 1939 World Science Fiction Convention panel, with Dave Kyle, Erle Korshak, and moderator John L. Coker III. Click for bigger version.

The 1939 World Science Fiction Convention, the very first Worldcon, took place in New York. There were a scant 200 attendees, but they included many of the most important names in early SF, including Frank R. Paul, Sam Moskowitz, John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, L. Sprague de Camp, Ray Bradbury, Hannes Bok, Jack Williamson, Frederik Pohl, Cyril Kornbluth, Donald A. Wollheim, Forrest J. Ackerman, and Harry Harrison.

Occurring on the eve of World War II, and at the very dawn of what’s known today as the Golden Age of Science Fiction, it was a watershed moment in the field and one that’s been frequently written about and discussed.

I was intensely curious about the 1939 World Science Fiction Convention, and here was an opportunity to hear about it from people who’d actually attended 73 years ago. Howard Andrew Jones volunteered to man the booth before his 12:30 reading, and I dashed to the Grand Suite 2AB to get an early seat.

Moderator John L. Coker III did an excellent job introducing the distinguished panelists, David Kyle and Erle Koshak, founder of the legendary SF specialty press Shasta Publishers and one of the organizers of Chicon I, the second World Science Fiction Convention in 1940. John also brought an amazing assortment of recently-discovered pictures, and some truly rare SF collectibles — including copies of the original flyers used to advertise the con (preserved intact for 73 years!).

He then handed the panel over to David and Erle. To set the stage, both told the audience a little about themselves, and what they were doing in 1939. David Kyle was 20 years old that year, and Erle Koshak was only 16.

David Kyle

David Kyle

“What you have to remember is that we were just kids,” David said. “Most of us involved in fandom at the time… we were just kids.”

That comment made the various stories all the more incredible. Erle Koshak, who lived in Chicago in 1939, told the crowd that four or five of the most devoted SF fans in the city all attended the same high school. When news of the first Worldcon began to circulate, “We decided that this is something that we had to be at,” Earle said simply.

How did they get there? “In newspapers at the time there were little announcements, classified ads really, for people looking to share rides. My friend and I found someone headed to New York city, and we responded to his ad.”

That simple statement stunned the crowd. “And your mothers just… let you go?”  a woman in the front row asked incredulously.

Erle shrugged. “I told his mother I would look after him, and he told my mother he would look after me,” he said with a smile.

David Kyle was intimately involved with the notorious Yellow Pamphlet which was secretly circulated before and during the convention, condemning the organizers for both their political views and their treatment of the Futurians, the prominent New York fan group which included Isaac Asimov, James Blish, Damon Knight, Judith Merril, Frederik Pohl, and Donald A. Wollheim. Kyle wrote and printed the pamphlet, and it led chairman Sam Moskowitz to ban most of the Futurians from the convention.

John Coker taped the entire panel, and it was also recorded by several audience members. If you get an opportunity to listen to it, I highly encourage you to do so. It was a fascinating slice of genre history, packed with anecdotes about the birth of the genre and some of its most famous practitioners.

David Kyle in the Black Gate booth. Photo courtesy Kerry Kyle

David Kyle in the Black Gate booth. Photo courtesy Kerry Kyle

I thought that would be the last time I got to see David Kyle, so I made sure to introduce myself at the end of the panel, shake his hand, and thank him for all the enjoyment his books had given me all those years ago.

But I hadn’t counted on David being energetic enough to tour the Dealers Room two days later. In the middle of the afternoon on Sunday, I saw him moving through the crowd, and I called him over to the booth.

That led to a conversation that lasted nearly an hour, as David talked about a great many things, including Gnome Press (“I was the money guy — I handled the finances and the ledgers, and Marty dealt with the authors”), his two books (“The first one sold nearly 100,000 copies — it was a best seller, and they wanted another one right away”), the Futurians (“We were just kids”), and much more.

I had a thousand questions about the first Worldcon, and the roots of the great feud that split the Futurians from the Greater New York Science Fiction Club (led by Sam Moskowitz), and “The Great Exclusion Act” that resulted in so many being blocked from the con. I wanted to know what led to the creation of A Pictorial History of Science Fiction and The Illustrated Book of Science Fiction Ideas & Dreams and was terribly curious about the legendary Gnome Press and what it was like to publish science fiction in the late 40s and early 50s.

David was gracious enough to answer every one of my questions. “We only printed what we knew we could sell,” he told me about Gnome Press. “I didn’t even get a copy of each one for myself.”

“Did you eventually compile a complete set?” I asked. A complete set of Gnome Press books would be a collector’s dream.

David Kyle and John O'Neill

David Kyle and John O'Neill. Photo courtesy Kerry Kyle

“No,” he said, shaking his head.

It was hard to talk with all those pesky customers trying to buy paperbacks and Black Gate magazines. Eventually David wheeled his motorized chair to the back of the booth, and we were able to talk quietly for the last 20 minutes while Peadar O Guilin and Kristin Janz dealt with the annoying people trying to purchase stuff..

It was delightful to have such an intimate conversation with a man I’ve admired for decades. His contributions to science fiction are staggering to contemplate. I hope that some day I can look back at my career and see even a fraction of what he has accomplished. That’s what science fiction conventions are all about, I suppose, but I never take that for granted.

But more than that, it was wonderful to see David Kyle still healthy, mobile and very active at 93. He is a living connection to the earliest days of this genre, a man who’s been intimately involved with the field at virtually every level: as a fan, a writer, an artist, and a publisher.

Because of his flair for storytelling and his lively wit, my conversation with David was, in a very real sense, a way to connect with the formative days of science fiction, to experience them and make them real. For nearly an hour I felt like I was 13 again, reading his books until much too late on a school night.

Thank you, David. Let’s do it again in another 20 years.

7 Comments »

  1. Great article!

    That’s really sad, though, that David Kyle didn’t get to keep at least one copy of his Gnome Press books. From images on Amazon and eBay, he and the others put a lot of effort into making them the best as could be.

    Comment by Mister_Alex - September 26, 2012 1:17 pm

  2. Alex,

    The Gnome Press books are truly gorgeous — and were the first time writers like Asimov and Howard were collected in permanent editions.

    I doubt there are very many complete collections, to be honest. But yes, it hardly seems fair that David doesn’t have one.

    Comment by John ONeill - September 26, 2012 10:31 pm

  3. This was a cool story Mr. ONeill.

    This is much more than most people will ever get.

    I’ve decided long ago ( maybe not that long ago is you knew my age ) that I would just leave my ‘heroes’ alone ’cause they’re so freaking old. Or died,
    before I knew they existed. That always makes meeting them a little tough.

    Life is short. Even if you live into your 80s or beyond.

    I don’t want to waist what’s left of Jack Vances’ life or whatever telling him how awesome he is to me.

    Most of my ‘heroes’ that are still alive seem to know they are pretty ‘awesome’ any ways.

    I reward my ‘heroes’ by keeping their memories alive.

    Introducing new readers to them + all that…

    Glad you got a those 20 odd minutes with the venerable David Kyle.

    That’s what I would like with a few people but it’s not realistic.

    You lived a dream Mr. ONeill. Cherish it.

    Comment by RadiantAbyss - September 28, 2012 3:17 pm

  4. Radiant,

    > I reward my ‘heroes’ by keeping their memories alive.
    > Introducing new readers to them + all that…

    An excellent way to honor those creators you admire.

    > Glad you got a those 20 odd minutes with the venerable David Kyle.
    > That’s what I would like with a few people but it’s not realistic.

    Well, I don’t know about that. Do you attend any conventions? You’d be surprised who you get to meet and talk to, especially at some of the smaller ones.

    Comment by John ONeill - September 30, 2012 2:33 pm

  5. […] Meeting Your Heroes: David Kyle […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » The Top 40 Black Gate Posts in September - November 7, 2012 4:40 pm

  6. […] of the Futurians, alongside Isaac Asimov, Frederik Pohl, Donald A. Wollheim, Cyril Kornbluth, David Kyle, Cyril Kornbluth, Judith Merril, and many others. He became a professional SF writer in 1940, with […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Vintage Treasures: The Best of James Blish - September 30, 2013 5:15 pm

  7. […] had the good fortune to talk to Gnome Press co-founder David Kyle at Worldcon here in Chicago, and his reminiscences on his days with the press were […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Kirkus Looks at The Meteoric Rise and Fall of Gnome Press - April 7, 2014 3:05 pm


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