The Challenging Enterprise of Discovery

In memory of Helena Binns
22 December 1941 – 18 September 2023

Helena with Apollo 16 astronaut John Young in Melbourne, November 1987 (photo from Helena’s collection).

Sometime around the mid-1980s, Helena Roberts (later Helena Binns) chatted to me conversationally about her involvement in the Space Association of Australia. She noted that she had recently suggested a slogan for their advertising flyers: THE CHALLENGING ENTERPRISE OF DISCOVERY (she got the inspiration for the slogan by combining the names of three NASA space shuttles). To me and to many of her friends, those themes within that slogan – challenge, enterprise and discovery – also embodied much of her life and efforts.

Helena at the microphone in Southern FM for the Space Show, Space Association of Australia, June 1991 (photo: Geoff Allshorn).

Learning to Look Up

In 2009, she wrote an autobiography that began:

“I was born Margaret Phyllis Duce, at Lilydale Hospital, 2 weeks after Pearl Harbour. My early years were spent with my family at my grandfather’s house on the outskirts of Healesville. When I was 8, we moved to East Warburton, where my father, with a gang of immigrant workmen, was building a bridge for the Country Roads Board. Later, when I started High School, we lived near and then in Alexandra.”

At the age of five or six, this country girl was introduced to science fiction through a visual medium (an illustrated book of Buck Rogers stories), becoming hooked on its fascinating attraction and its call for suspension of disbelief: “I knew that talking animals weren’t possible, at least in this world. I wasn’t sure about rocket ships and worlds other than our own, but it all looked so fascinating that I didn’t care whether it was real or not, I just wanted more of it.”

The Orion Nebula, an incomplete painting gifted to me by Kelvin Roberts in the 1990s.

This mixing of the visual and the intellectual, the excitement and the awe, would sustain Helena throughout her life – from her interest in astronomy (joining the Astronomical Society of Victoria at age 14) and science fiction, to her later passions for artwork and photography (as an interesting blend of these interests, science fiction local Dick (‘Ditmar’) Jenssen recalls taking Helena on a tour of the Meteorology Department of Melbourne University around 1990; she also became an unofficial photographic historian for the Space Association.

The Stars Beckon

Helena aspired towards academia, and she topped her class in primary and high school with a particular passion (she called it an obsession) with Maths and Science, especially Astronomy. Yet she later reported how this aspiration ended:

“At the end of Third Form (Year 9) before my 14th birthday, my scientific education came to a grinding halt. My country High School did not have a Science course in Fourth Form, only Agricultural Science. I begged to be allowed to study science by correspondence, but was refused. I was offered a teaching scholarship but my parents wouldn’t give permission for me to take it. (If I failed, they might have to pay back the money.)”

Helena with Darth Vader (David Prowse) at the Galactic Tours convention in Melbourne, March 1986 (photo by Kelvin Roberts, from Helena’s collection).

Despite her lack of opportunities in a post-war rural setting, she sought loftier inspiration. Over the years, Helena became something of a renaissance woman who explored many communities and philosophies, including media and literary SF fandom, a variety of science fictional and speculative fiction clubs and conventions (becoming a life member of Continuum in the early 2000s), the Melbourne Science Fiction Club (of which she became a life member in 2009), the Melbourne-based Star Trek club, Austrek, the aforementioned Space Association of Australia (to which she introduced me), and Tolkein-inspired artwork. Some mutual friends indicate that they knew her primarily though one or another of these activities, or through either of her husbands, but I felt privileged to know her through all of these avenues, bar one (Tolkein) – but even then, I note that much of her artwork features flying horses or mythic women/characters, with long-flowing manes or hair or apparel that flutter aeronautically behind them.

Helena and Apollo 16 astronaut Charlie Duke, Melbourne, circa 1990 (photo from Helena’s collection).

Melbourne Science Fiction Club

Co-founder Race Mathews reports that five young men, including Merv Binns, formed the core group that ultimately founded the Melbourne Science Fiction Group (later the Melbourne Science Fiction Club, or MSFC) on 9 May 1952. Nearly six years later, 16 year-old Margaret Duce visited the Club on 14 January 1958, initiating her own involvement and friendships that lasted a lifetime. She also began attending SF conventions, continuing this practice for decades. Meanwhile, she also pursued tertiary qualifications that did not lead to the artistic career she had hoped for.

MSFC 50th anniversary cake cutting in 2002: Dick Jenssen, Paul Ewins, Helena and Merv (photographer unknown, photo supplied by Bruce Gillespie)

Although Helena was made welcome within the MSFC, her active involvement apparently faltered somewhat over subsequent years as she diversified her involvement with other groups, leading Fancyclopaedia to suggest that she gafiated from fandom sometime in the 1960s and returned after marrying Merv in 1998. However, this assessment overlooks her heavy involvement with other forms of fandom during the intervening years. I met her sometime in the late 1970s through Star Trek fandom (where she created fan fiction, expository writing and artwork) and I saw her regularly at both literary and media SF conventions and space-related activities – clearly because she obviously enjoyed being involved in all these forms of fandom. Perhaps her involvement also shifted (in part at least) beyond literary SF because its fandom had traditionally been predominantly male-oriented, whereas media SF fandom was always more inclusive and encouraging of women during that same era.

Counterbalance

In 1965, Helena married Kelvin Roberts, a commercial artist who specialized in photographic retouching. He later accompanied her to MSCF nights when they showed movies. Kelvin was a big fan of adventure stories such as those of Hammond Innes and Alastair MacLean, and hadn’t read a lot of science fiction, but he appreciated its imaginative and innovative qualities, especially in movie form, and read a lot of the same books as Helena. He even assisted her in creating Star Trek artwork for one piece of fan fiction.

It was during her time with Kelvin that Helena felt the freedom to explore alternate philosophies, becoming something of what her niece Ana refers to as a ‘hippie’. In the early 1970s, she wrote to ‘maverick Georgian guru Gurdjieff’, asking for his sage advice about changing her name from Margaret to Helena. He replied that she should do what she liked – and she did.

Kelvin in his garden (photo from Helena’s collection).

Many of the friends who knew Kelvin will remember him with fondness and affection, recalling him as a gentle-natured and kind gentleman. One old friend, Greg Franklin, got to visit the couple regularly for dinners at their home in Albert Park, and he recalls them to be a perfect counterbalance for each other: Kelvin was dyslexic and gregarious, whereas Helena aspired to be academic but remained somewhat reserved. Like Greg, I remember visiting their home and seeing Kelvin’s bank of television sets, each one tuned to a different channel (in the days before streaming services) so he could skim the content of all channels simultaneously. His imagination enabled him, despite his dyslexia, to write and illustrate a children’s book, and he told me once how he had thought of the plot of a perfect bank robbery story, but he had decided never to write it down because it involved possible harm to innocent bystanders and he feared someone might copy the details in real life.

Kelvin died in 1991.

Photo Opportunity

Helena and R2D2 at the Galactic Tours convention in Melbourne, 1986 (photo by Kelvin Roberts, from Helena’s collection).

“I had a small talent for art as well, and wanted to study that too, but I looked forward to it more as a hobby or diversion, certainly not a practical way to earn a living.” – so observed Helena in 2009, explaining how her interest in artwork had been moderated by the harsh limitations within her life. And yet, armed with an Olympus film camera in the pre-digital age (and later with digital cameras kindly gifted to her by Eric Lindsay and Dick Jenssen), she became somewhat well-known as a dedicated photographer at community events. She and Kelvin became official photographers at the Aussiecon, Australia’s first ever World Science Convention in 1975. She attended many events and chronicled those times.

Helena (centre, middle row, wearing red jacket and Star Trek IDIC medallion) with friends at an Austrek reunion held on 19 June 2004 (from Geoff’s collection).

Early Austrek member Paul Murphy recalls Helena’s high-quality photography during production of the fan film, City on the Edge of the Yarra. Over the decades, she amassed photo albums and CDs full of photos that documented scores of people from literary and media science fiction communities; proud compilations of professional-quality photos documenting people in their prime, and clubs during the vibrant halcyon days before digital technology changed the nature of social interaction. I would suggest that the only modern Australian SF community photographer to rival Helena in scope is Cat Sparks, who recalls of Helena’s prodigious photography: “She and I used to share photos between each other of the various conventions we attended. She was a lovely lady and I will miss her.”

From Space to Space Age

Merv and Helena at Continuum 2009 (photo by Cat Sparks).

Merv Binns’ involvement with McGill’s Bookshop and the MSFC, and later with Space Age Books, reveal how significantly he had been in helping to establish Melbourne as a locus of science fiction. He is remembered by many thousands of people in Melbourne (and beyond) as the proprietor of the latter bookshop, which serviced literary and media science fiction communities. I once had the pleasure of telling him that, as a teenager, I had found visiting Space Age Books to be as magical as entering Oz or Hogwarts, and I know many others of my vintage who felt similarly. Merv had remained friends with Kelvin and Helena for decades, but after Kelvin’s death, Helena began to more seriously reconnect with Merv. She later wrote that Kelvin had, towards the end of his life, encouraged her to seek companionship with Merv and that subsequently: “Merv started inviting me to attend conventions with him, which helped me to remain in touch with the science fiction community. We were not yet a couple, although we had been friends for over 40 years.” They were married in 1998.

Helena and Merv at Continuum in 2009 (photo by Cat Sparks)

Helena’s increased involvement within literary SF fandom after that was undoubtedly due to Merv’s encouragement – and maybe also because she found that fandom to now be more inclusive of women. Together, she and Merv became regular attendees at a variety of conventions, and they dabbled together in creating personal fanzines. I was honoured to attend regular dinners with Helena and Merv (and a variety of their peers) at the Rosstown Hotel, Caulfield, sometimes celebrating their birthdays or other events. It was here that I got to chat most closely with Merv, while Helena looked on approvingly.

Meanwhile, Helena maintained her interest in the space program, regularly attending meetings of the Space Association until her failing health, or other factors, made such visits no longer feasible.

Helena and Kelvin (front – far right) at their home in Caulfield South hosting a BBQ for the Space Association of Australia on 16 December 1990 (photo: Geoff Allshorn).

I last spoke to Helena in 2020, when she rang me from the hospital to inform me that Merv had passed away, and we talked about how a funeral or memorial service would not be possible at that time due to COVID lockdowns. When I offered to help her in any way that the lockdowns allowed, she thanked me for the offer and said that she would be in touch. I never heard from her again, although her family was able to keep me informed when she went into a nursing home.

From Fringe to Focus

(photo: from Geoff Allshorn’s collection).

Despite a division between literary and SF media fandoms, Helena fitted effortlessly within both communities. I recall dressing in costume while attending a literary SF convention in 2004, and Helena welcomed me into the building with a humorous flourish by addressing me as my fictional persona from TV sci fi series UFO: “Hello, Commander Straker!” As a veteran Trekker, she later came to a meeting of the Star Trek club, Austrek, when I gave a talk on the club history, and she introduced herself to a new generation of Star Trek fans. Although she saw herself as being on the fringe of fandom, she actually was a quiet and diligent participant, observer and historian of this culture, using her connections within the locus of these activities to photograph and record the lives and times of her people. In doing so, she captured for posterity the youth, vitality and culture of allied communities during half a century of social and technological change. She recorded the images of friends and colleagues, many of whom are now departed from our midst. She became an archivist of culture at a particular moment in time and space, providing raw historical material for social historians and anthropological scholars. While history records the era as the dawn of the space age, Helena helped to record the lives and impact of space age culture and ideals upon ordinary people. In whatever way that twentieth- and early twenty-first century science fiction fandom will be remembered, Helena will have contributed significantly to that memory.

It is hoped that some of Helena’s science fiction photos will be published online through appropriate clubs and archival sources, so that her legacy can be preserved and shared.

The author acknowledges that some of this background information came from Helena’s autobiographical material.

Sources:

Anonymous, last updated 20 October 2023. ‘Helena Binns‘, Fanlore website.

Anonymous, last updated 29 September 2023. ‘Helena Binns‘, Fancyclopedia 3 website.

Helena Binns, 2009. ‘Helena on the fringe of fandom: Her authentic story‘, reprinted in Bruce Gillespie (ed.) *brg*132, October 2023, pp. 9 – 15; and here on this blog.

Leigh Edmonds, 2020. ‘A luminary of Australian science fiction’, in The Age, 18 April.

Bruce Gillespie, 2023. ‘Bruce Gillespie’s memories of Helena 1941- 2023’, in Bruce Gillespie (ed.), *brg*132, October, pp. 8 – 9.

Race Mathews, 1995. ‘Whirlaway to Thrilling Wonder Stories: Boyhood Reading in Wartime and Postwar Melbourne’, in The University of Melbourne Library Journal, Vol. 1, No. 5, Autumn/Winter, pp. 18 – 31.

With thanks:

Thanks to Helena’s sister, Barbara Staffieri, and her nieces: Ana Wines and Stephanie Precht.

Thanks also to Cat Sparks, Bruce Gillespie, Elaine Cochrane, Dick (‘Ditmar’) Jenssen, David and Jenny McKinlay, Greg Franklin, and Paul Murphy.

©2023 Geoff Allshorn

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