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 Matthews 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 Matthews, 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

Helena on the Fringe of Fandom – The Authentic Story

“I believe that if a convention is worth attending, it’s worth photographing – and the same goes for any other special event. It’s good to have something to remember it by, and it’s even better to be able to share it with others.”

Helena in the Captain’s Chair at the Galactic Tours convention, Melbourne, March 1986 (from Helena’s collection).

by Helena Binns, 2009

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.

My introduction to science fiction came when I was very young, perhaps 5 or 6, when my uncle Dave (my dad’s brother) showed me an illustrated book of Buck Rogers stories. I was just at that age where the distinction between reality and fiction was still a little blurred. 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.

I read my first actual science fiction story when I was 7, in 1949. It was “Mewhu’s Jet” by Theodore Sturgeon, published in a British SF magazine that Dave had left lying about. It was about a little alien boy who gets stranded on Earth (does that plot sound familiar? I wonder if Spielberg read the same story.) The little ET gets about with a jet-propelled backpack, hence the title. I was very taken with that story, and have remembered it ever since. (Even though I suspected that you couldn’t carry enough fuel in a little backpack to get very far.)

Authentic Science Fiction Monthly #57, May 1955.

Of the actual SF magazines my uncle had, some were British editions of American originals like Astounding (the precursor of Analog) and some were original British publications such as If, New Worlds and Authentic. Throughout my childhood, Uncle Dave was my only source of SF. Needless to say, I still hadn’t encountered any other person who shared my enthusiasm for science fiction. Then when I was 13 going on 14, I found in the readers’ letters column of one of my uncle’s magazines a missive from a young man named Richard Paris, from Wellington. (The magazine was Authentic Science Fiction Monthly No. 57, dated 15th May 1955.) Richard declared, “I am a young New Zealander who likes good science fiction. I like Authentic. I do not like American SF…Every month the number of SF mags in the shops is tremendous…But – as far as I know – there are no clubs, organisations, or gatherings of any sort. Is NZ dead, or just hollow? I am only fourteen, bit if no one is willing to start one, then I will. I want a penfriend (or a dozen) about my age preferably, interested in SF, Astronomy and Space Travel.” I was, of course, inspired to reply to his plea for penfriends, and was accepted as one of the “dozen or so”. I had never had a penfriend before, let alone one interested in science fiction.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

A few months after we started communicating, Richard wrote to say that he had dropped all of his SF penfriends except me. He had decided that it was time to put away childish things and devote all of his time and attention to the quest for enlightenment. (We had found that we had each independently stumbled upon the ideas of the maverick Georgian guru Gurdjieff, who believed in unifying the core elements of all spiritual beliefs, and linking them to the search for knowledge of the physical universe.) We continued to exchange letters, mostly about spiritual matters, for the next year or so. Then unexpectedly I received a letter from someone else in Wellington – an adult named Mervyn Barrett, who introduced himself as a friend of Richard. At first I was put off by this. Who was this interloper? I was a bit miffed that he should take it upon himself to butt into my correspondence with Richard and write to me without being asked. I wondered briefly if he was a child molester, and decided probably not, since he declared himself to be a science fiction fan and the two compulsions somehow didn’t seem to go together. He explained that he was one of a number of science fiction enthusiasts in Wellington. Richard and two other youngsters, Bruce Burn and John Morgan, who were at Wellington Tech with Richard, had got their photo in the paper along with the news that they were forming an SF club. It met as ‘The Wellington Science Fiction Circle’ in the basement of Richard’s house. (Later when Richard gafiated, his father arranged for the meetings to continue.) Mervyn said that he knew of a similar group of fans in Melbourne that I might like to contact. They called themselves the Melbourne Science Fiction Club. He gave me the address.

I certainly would like to, and did contact them by mail. Since I was only 15 and still living in Alexandra (about 140 km from Melbourne), there was little hope of my paying a visit to the Club. But then it turned out that the Club came to me, in the form of Ian Crozier, Editor of the Club’s fanzine Etherline, who I think had relatives or friends in or near Alexandra, and took time out from visiting them to drop in and welcome me to the Melbourne Science Fiction Club.

In the course of our conversation he discovered that I was a budding artist, and asked if I would like to do some drawings for Etherline. My first was published on the cover of Etherline No. 85, sometime in 1957. (Many issues of Etherline were undated, which creates no end of fun for the would-be archivist who has to trawl through the contents in search of hints as to the nearest likely publication date.)

The next was in No. 87, which actually did have a date on the cover, 8th August 1957. That was my drawing of Einstein against an astronomical background, dubbed ‘The Visionary’, presumably by the Editor. I told Ian that I liked science fiction but not fantasy – a preference that still holds, with one notable exception. Ian then proceeded to tell me about that exception. He had read the first volume of The Lord of the Rings and said that it was about a war between good and evil. I said that I didn’t really like war stories (though I did understand the concept of the struggle between good and evil, as taught in all major religions, and personified by Gurdjieff as “the struggle of the magicians”, by which he meant wizards, and there certainly were titanic battles of wizards good and evil in The Lord of the Rings.) When I later read (at the still impressionable age of 17) The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, I had that feeling I’d had when I first laid eyes on that old comic strip Buck Rogers book. “This is probably not real, but it should be.”

I had known since I was very young that that I would be useless in the material world and that the only thing I was fit for was to be an academic. I was intensely motivated to learn and teach, and besides I needed the security of a government job. I topped my class in every grade in primary and high school and had an obsession with maths and science, especially Astronomy. 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. 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.)

I turned 16 at the end of Fifth Form in 1957 (my birthday is on the Summer Solstice, just before Christmas) and was sent to Melbourne to study Art at Melbourne Tech (a seedy old institute even in those days, it now goes under the grandiose title of The Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology). I was sent to live with my aunt (my father’s sister) and her family at Oak Park (where I never spotted a single oak). On the plateau opposite was the end of one of Essendon Airport’s runways. That might have been a problem for some. But I was pleased to be within the sight and sound of aircraft. I had dreamed about them since I was a child addicted to ‘Biggles’ books, but had rarely seen or heard them in the countryside (except for crop-dusters, of course).

I couldn’t wait for my first opportunity to visit the Melbourne Science Fiction Club. According to Etherline No. 94, (dated 23rd January 1958): “On January 14th, Margaret Duce of Alexandria visited the Club with a Friend.” I think the friend was probably my aunt or my cousin, (a girl a little older than me), as I would not have been allowed to go by myself on my first visit without having someone along to check out the Club to see if it was okay. I believe I went by myself on subsequent visits.

The Club members were all male, all older than I was, and some considerably older. They greeted us kindly, and made me feel welcome. Those that I remember from my early visits were Bob McCubbin, Tony Santos, Don Latimer, Keith McLelland, Dick Jenssen, and of course Merv Binns – although they could not have all been present that first evening, since the chronicler was disappointed with the sparse attendance on the night. The venue was an upstairs room, I think in the Saint James Building in Little Collins Street, Melbourne.

Following closely after my first visit to the Club was my first science fiction convention – Melcon, at the Richmond Town Hall, 5th April 1958 (probably the Easter weekend). The Con Report refers to it as ‘The Sixth Convention’ by which they must have meant the 6th Australian Natcon, since the first four were held in Sydney and the fifth was Melbourne’s first – Olympicon, in December 1956, the year of the Melbourne Olympic Games. I was very impressed, especially with the talk by Barry Clarke of the Astronomical Society of Victoria, on the canals of Mars. Since Astronomy was my major scientific interest, when I was 14 I had joined the Astronomical Society as a junior member (non-attending, of course, until I came to live in Melbourne). On the second day there was a barbecue organized by Jack Bristowe, then chairman of the Mountain Science Fiction Group, near the home of Les Ward at Upwey, but I wasn’t able to go. Melcon was also the first convention for John Foyster, who was only a few months older than I. Later John and his friend Chris Bennie befriended me (I suppose we were a sort of junior fans’ subgroup) and in subsequent years I was invited to small fannish gatherings at Chris Bennie’s home, not far from where I then lived in Ivanhoe with my mother and stepfather. John and Chris were guests at my 21st birthday party in 1962. As everyone knows, John was a prolific publisher of fanzines from a very early age. He used to send them to me and I learned a lot about the esoteric mysteries of fandom, including its jargon, from them. I was intrigued by the lively (and occasionally vitriolic) exchanges that could take place between the highly opinionated publishers of some of these journals. Sadly the Club zine Etherline ceased publication not long after its 100th issue. I felt privileged to have had my drawings on a few of its covers.

MSCF co-founders, including Merv Binns (back row, left). Photo supplied by Dick Jenssen (back row, right).

At the first Club meeting rooms I had visited, people sat at small tables, playing chess, which I thought was wonderful as I had taught myself chess from a book but had never had the opportunity to play. They let me play, and it was a really great experience for me. After St James the MSFC shifted venues, and for a while there was no regular meeting place. Then Merv obtained from his employers McGills Newsagency at a very reasonable rate, the use of a large upstairs area warehouse, located behind the shop in Somerset Place – a grandiose name for a back alley. It was a name that was to become familiar to fans for years to come. It was not a venue for the faint-hearted. Access was through a narrow doorway, up a steep narrow flight of disintegrating wooden steps, or by a creaking, halting ascent in Melbourne’s oldest elevator – the notorious hydraulic lift, the last remnant of a system that had once served the entire city’s freight elevators. It was an open-framed wooden structure that offered no reassurance whatsoever to the intimidated passenger. Having survived the lift or the stairs, and occasionally the apparition of a demented early arrival dropping from the ceiling of the lift to scare the wits out of the next passenger, the fan emerged into the clubrooms – more spacious than previous venues, with room for an actual library, and secure tenancy – for about a decade, as it turned out. A real estate agent would have called it a “renovator’s delight”, and although there was not a lot of actual renovating done, Merv and a few others set about making it more habitable. Tony Santos donated some furniture, including a large dining-room table, which was promptly appropriated for table tennis. No more chess! I was really disappointed, though I suppose it was not altogether a bad thing that a bunch of geeks were getting some exercise.

I braved the perils of the lift (there was a sort of nostalgia at riding in a genuine antique) and enjoyed attending the meetings whenever I could (despite the table tennis). The library was my only source of SF reading material until Keith McLelland started lending me books and magazine from his extensive collection. It was my first acquaintance with the American SF and fantasy magazines. I was particularly fond of ‘Astounding’ and its successor ‘Analog’, as I had a preference for science fiction that was (at least in part) actually science based. Keith earned his living as a technical artist for the Government Aircraft Factory, and in his spare time had produced highly detailed and decorative drawings for the Club’s zine Etherline and for Race Mathews’ Bacchanalia and others. He also painted, mostly watercolours, often of castles or other exotic locations, and created small sculptures. Our friendship ultimately almost led to marriage (even though he was an ‘older man’; I must have been in search of a ‘father figure’) but it didn’t work out. We remained friends, though, until he died in 1990. Keith was a conscientious chronicler of Club events and outings, and took numerous photographs, mostly before my time. They were all dissipated when he died with no close relatives to care.

In 1960 when I was 18, I finally met my Kiwi penfriend Mervyn Barrett (sadly never did meet his young friend Richard Paris, my first NZ penfriend). He was in Melbourne for a few days en route to somewhere else. Later he came back to Melbourne and lived here for a number of years. He became very much a part of the local science fiction scene. His friend from New Zealand Bruce Burn produced a fanzine, for which I did a couple of cover illustrations, drawn straight onto stencil. That was a whole new challenge for me, and one I hadn’t learned at art school. Though at art school I did learn how to do linocuts and print from them. I took the opportunity to do my first Tolkien inspired works, and made a linocut of Bilbo Baggins in Mirkwood surrounded by spiders, and one of the dragon Smaug on his mountain-top.

After Melcon in 1958, there wasn’t another convention in Melbourne until 1966, and Club membership dropped off, but a lot of interest in fandom was kept alive by the fanzine publishers. The ‘Three Johns (John Foyster, John Bangsund and John Baxter) and Leigh Edmonds were the best known but there were others. Meanwhile the Club was kept going (at times almost single-handedly) by Merv Binns. Along with Mervyn Barrett and Cedric Rowley, Merv started showing movies at the McGills warehouse clubroom, which lured a number of people back to the Club and attracted a whole bunch of new ones.

I spent my years at Melbourne Tech pining for Melbourne University, which was just up the road. I craved knowledge and intellectual challenge, and art school was not the place for either. Although I liked doing artwork, and would have appreciated some instruction in the technicalities of it, there was very little of that – no lessons on Anatomy or Perspective, just criticism of our stumbling attempts. I specialized in Illustration, hoping to be able to illustrate science fiction or fantasy books. My teacher was Harold Freedman, later appointed Victoria’s State Artist. He designed the grand murals at Spencer Street Station (now sadly gone), Eastern Hill Fire Station and Flemington Race Course. (If you’re going to have a mentor, it might as well be the best.)

From the moment I knew that I was going to have to study art instead of science, I dreaded the prospect of having to try to make a living from it. I was just not quite adept enough at it. I finished my Art diploma course at Melbourne Tech in 1961, and my worst fears were realized. I found it very difficult to get work. Although I got a few small assignments from publishers, the only job I could get was as a designer for a plastic sign factory (typography turned out to be my best subject at art school, though also the most boring one.) I was never paid more than minimum wage. I had only two other jobs, and lost them both through ill health. When I looked for freelance work, the local publishers told me that all of their illustration work was done interstate. The only assignments I could get were doing finished diagrams (based on authors’ scribbles) for maths books. The subject matter suited me, but it was a constant reminder that I had not been given the opportunity at school to continue my formal studies in maths and science. (And creating meticulous black on white diagrams for hours at a time exacerbated my migraines).

A sample of Kelvin’s photo retouching skills in the days before digital photography (from Helena’s collection).

In 1965, I married Kelvin Roberts (an even older man than Keith, and even more of a father figure), a commercial artist who specialized in photographic retouching. I did not go back to the Club for a while, then Kelvin accompanied me there when I told him they were showing movies. (Kelvin loved the movies almost as much as Merv does.) Some that we saw were quite memorable. For example, I had never seen ‘The 5,000 Fingers of Dr T’ before, though Dick Jenssen, Lee Harding and Mervyn Barrett were really besotted with it, so I finally saw what all the fuss was about. And we both loved ‘Forbidden Planet’. Kelvin had always been a big fan of adventure stories such as those of Hammond Innes and Alastair MacLean. He 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 books I had.

In 1966 there was a convention at the clubrooms, the first since 1958. I wished that I had a camera to record it, but sadly did not have one then or for many years after that. (Most of what was said about impoverished artists was true, especially in those days.) I had always wanted a camera, both as an artistic tool and as a documentary one. I bought one for Kelvin, but it was just a simple one and most of the time we couldn’t afford film or processing anyhow. A couple of my paintings (one inspired by Tolkien’s The Hobbit and a fantasy one with a medieval look about it) were sold at that convention and I have no pictures of those either. I wouldn’t even have any photos of my 21st birthday party if Mervyn Barrett hadn’t brought his camera. He has shared copies of those with me, along with his photos of my wedding to Kelvin, and numerous Melbourne MSFC and other fannish gatherings. Michael O’Brien from Tasmania also took photos of a number of Melbourne events, including the 1968 convention held at the MSFC and the 1970 one at the Capri Theatre in Murrumbeena.

I continued to attend every Melbourne convention I could, and in 1973 at the age of 31 I got my first camera (with money earned for my cartoon style illustrations for a book by Ian Sykes, an independent petroleum peddler, satirizing the scheming of the multinational moguls). I had wanted a camera all my life, and knew exactly what I wanted – a single-lens reflex that was not too heavy for me to hold. I compared the specifications of each brand before buying one, and settled on the Olympus OM-1, which served me well for the next 30 years. At about the same time I bought mine, Kelvin got a very good secondhand single lens reflex camera with automatic exposure and that suited him fine. It turned out that he enjoyed taking photos as much as I did, and was very good at it. He converted one room of our rented house in Albert Park into a darkroom (fortuitously it had an exhaust fan), then decided that he didn’t like developing and printing black and white photos all that much, though he liked seeing the results, so I finished up doing all of the developing and printing. Later I did colour as well, but we could never afford a machine to process the negatives or the prints, and doing it by hand is a very laborious process. (Each print has to be processed individually.) Breathing in the chemicals isn’t all that good for you either, even with an exhaust fan. Thus equipped, along with Kelvin I became a visual chronicler of conventions, attending all the Melbourne ones we could afford to. Kelvin enjoyed the conventions as well, and took quite a few photos. 1973 was also the year I changed my name, from Margaret to Helena. (It seemed like a good idea at the time). Merv has since pointed out that if I hadn’t, we would now both have the same initials. (I’m not sure if that would have been an advantage or not.)

Merv Binns in costume at Aussiecon, 1975 (photo by Helena). FANAC

The most interesting and exciting convention by far, of course, was Aussiecon 1975 – Melbourne’s and Australia’s first Worldcon. It opened with a dramatic audio-visual display – a photo montage with music, the kind of thing that present-day conventioneers probably take for granted, but it was very innovative way back then. I was surprised and pleased to see some of my Tolkien paintings featured amongst the avalanche of images on screen. Because my habit of photographing everything that moved (or didn’t) at conventions had been noticed, the Aussiecon Committee also asked me to be their official photographer. They even gave me a dozen or so rolls of film to do it with. Unfortunately they didn’t also provide me with a front-row seat to do it from. I was told to stand up at the back with the other photographers (of which there were quite a few, amateur and professional, most with longer lenses than mine). Consequently most of my Aussiecon One photos look as if they were taken through the wrong end of a telescope. These days I mostly manage to get in early and bag a front row seat, but back then I was not wise in the ways of the world and I (and my photos) suffered accordingly. Also the Aussiecon coffers didn’t stretch to subsidising the cost of developing and printing the photos. I managed to develop the negatives myself, but was not able to do a lot of prints.

Aussiecon also brought the opportunity to meet people from overseas and make new friends – among them an American, Jan Howard Finder, an enthusiastic Aussiephile who introduced himself as ‘The Wombat’. We also met Mr Sci-Fi himself, Forrest J Ackerman, who liked my Tolkien paintings which were on display at the very comprehensive Art Show. He gave me a bat brooch from the Dracula Society. (Awesome.) The only three Science Fiction inspired paintings that Kelvin ever did were on display also, and two of them won prizes. They were very professional, airbrushed and finely detailed. We asked Ben Bova if he would be interested in Kelvin’s artwork, but he said that they only used artists not too far removed from Analog’s headquarters in New York. Over the years since, including two more Melbourne Worldcons and a memorable trip to my only overseas convention, the 1979 Worldcon in Brighton, England. That trip was thanks to Kelvin having one client who would telephone him at all hours of the day or night to produce artwork for catalogues. Kelvin finished up charging them double for the inconvenience, even though he did not mind the odd hours all that much. He worked on ‘Ditmar time’, his hours of sleeping and waking getting later and later as if he were born on Mars with a 25-hour day, and kept himself awake with coffee and cigarettes. He gave up smoking in 1981, but in 1988 it caught up with him anyhow. He died of cancer in 1991.

After Kelvin died, 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. Merv had invited Kelvin and me to his and his father Ern’s birthday and New Year’s Eve Parties over the years, so Kelvin was quite well acquainted with him. Kelvin was always very intuitive, and when he knew that he had only a little while to live, he was concerned about me being left on my own and suggested that Merv might be a good companion for me. I said that was unlikely since we were just friends, but eventually his prediction came true. Merv and I married in 1988.

I have done my best to photograph every convention I’ve attended, but cost has always been a constraint – until the arrival of the digital age. It almost passed me by. I knew that a digital camera would solve the problem of having films developed and printed, but the initial cost was a major hurdle. Five years ago, Eric Lindsay gave us his old digital camera, and that opened up a whole new world of documentary excess. I could now take (almost) as many photos as I wanted, and proceeded to do so. For higher quality photos I continued to use my trusty old Olympus film camera, but couldn’t always get them all developed and printed. Besides, after 30 years of use, the poor old camera was beginning to wear out. Then Dick Jenssen gave me his new digital camera (it’s a long story) and bought an even newer one. Photographic nirvana had finally arrived. Thanks to Ditmar, I can now take quantities of photos of reasonable quality. Dick had also given us his old computer and monitor and taught me how to use the software to enhance and adapt photos. I can now edit photos and share them around without having to get them printed out first. This is really gratifying. I believe that if a convention is worth attending, it’s worth photographing – and the same goes for any other special event. It’s good to have something to remember it by, and it’s even better to be able to share it with others.

Of course, the other advantage of having the computer and knowing (up to a certain point) how to use it, had been that for the past ten years or so, Merv and I have been able to produce personal fanzines or newsletters containing book and movie reviews and accounts of our own life’s events in general, and Merv’s memories of the early days in particular. That is still in progress, and of course photographs are a big part of it. There have been big gaps in the production of these publications over the past few years, due to technical as well as health and financial problems, but we are still doing our best to get it all done while we can.

I am 67 now. Merv is 75. And we consider it a blessing (and something of a minor miracle) that so many of our old friends are still around, and still in touch. And we are grateful for it.

Helena

Written by Helena Binns in 2009 to commemorate her being granted life membership of the Melbourne Science Fiction Club (MSFC). Kindly supplied by Bruce Gillespie.

©2023 Geoff Allshorn. All rights are hereby returned to respective owners.

From Fan Fiction to Future

Apollo 11 Saturn V on launch pad 39A, 1 July 1969. NASA Photo.

Was Neil Armstrong a Trekkie? Did ‘Wagon Train’ fan fiction help inspire us to go to the Moon? And might Luke Skywalker create a better future for humanity than Jesus?

Thirty years ago, I was privileged to interview someone who had just been selected for astronaut training by NASA. He spoke to me of how Star Trek and other sci fi from his childhood had inspired him to pursue a career in the stars.

A dozen years later, another astronaut – Neil Armstrong, no less – attended a Star Trek convention and spoke in praise of its inspirational impact:

“So, I’m hoping for my next command, to be given a Federation starship…

“…I am an engineer. And if I get that command, I want a chief engineering officer like Montgomery Scott. Because I know Scotty will get the job done and do it right. Even if I often hear him say, ‘But Captain, I dinna have enough time!’

“So from one old engineer to another, thanks, Scotty.”

21st July (Australia time) marks the anniversary of Armstrong (and Aldrin)’s landing on the Moon aboard the Apollo 11 lunar module, the Eagle – one of the most significant historical events in living memory. The 1969 flight of Apollo 11 (and the overall space program) was the culmination of dreams that began the first time we looked up into the skies. Perhaps Lucy – our distant ancestor who left her footprints in an African gully in prehistoric times – stumbled and fell to her death as she gazed distractedly upward at the Moon, where Armstrong would leave his own footprints some uncountable millennia later. Or so we can ponder – as perhaps Lucy pondered. Such is the stuff of which dreams and imaginings are made.

Such dreams fuel our passions – or reflect them. The aforementioned Star Trek TV series was marketed as a rebooted Wagon Train TV series set in space – pioneers and explorers travelling to the stars. And as Wagon Train fan fiction was being written over subsequent years, men were landing and walking on the Moon. Did such aspirational dreams fuel reality – or did they reflect it? In this vein, it is interesting to be mindful of the similarities (and differences) between the lunar travellers in the classic sci fi novel by Jules Verne, From the Earth to the Moon and the actual Apollo Moon program a century later.

“Ever since I saw the moon landing as a young teenager, I was determined I would go into space one day.” – Richard Branson

Artemis 1 Prelaunch, Sunday, Nov. 6, 2022, at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo Credit: (NASA/Joel Kowsky)

As humanity prepares to return to the Moon – a generation after Apollo – aboard the Artemis program, we can speculate about the cultural shift from naming a moonshot program after a mythical male God (Apollo) in the 1960s, to his mythical female counterpart (Artemis) in the 2020s. Like the space program itself, our astronaut selection and cultural norms have become more inclusive of diversity and much more. Artemis was not only a Moon goddess, but also deity connected to nature and the environment – suggesting that we are more open to understanding our place in the cosmos within a perspective of respecting our planet and its biosphere. As a species, we are changing, evolving… perhaps the communication technology spawned by Apollo has brought us closer together as a human family and as a participant in an active biosphere of organic, sentient life.

But the tendency to link the space program to mythology is itself changing in our culture. Our literature that most closely resembles and portrays space – science fiction – is a modern, interesting, and exciting form of secular story-telling. Its birth as a modern-day art form coincided with the height of the Apollo program, with the film, 2001: A Space Odyssey; and subsequent hard-science speculations (Contact, Interstellar, Gravity), which help us to glimpse the numinous in our cosmos.

Herein lies a warning and a challenge: we must be careful to remain creators of our dreams and not just consumers. Luke Skywalker and Doctor Who must not be only our imaginary heroes: they must be our role models in real life. We must follow their example to confront hardship and make the world a better place.

“For change to happen it does not only need to change opinions, there needs to be a way for the changed opinion to be turned into action.”
– Timothy Underwood, When Can Fiction Change the World?

Does sci fi inspire science, or does science inspire sci fi? We all need arts, music, writings and culture to inspire us and to fully optimise our human experience and potential. I would suggest that sci fi is a form of fan fiction, interacting with science and scientists to offer contributions (culturally and scientifically) to upcoming scientific, cultural and technological revolutions.

Meanwhile, ponder the Internet and IT or mobile phone technology that allows you to read this blog. You can thank Neil Armstrong and the army of Apollo engineers and scientists who led the scientific revolution that shaped your world today. Now, imagine how Artemis and its technology will change our culture, our technology, our dreams, and the next generation.

©2023 Geoff Allshorn

Trekking on the Edge of the Yarra

The local Star Trek club, Austrek, will soon approach its fiftieth birthday. One of its pioneer members, Paul Murphy, recalls glimpses of its early days when people subscribed to the Star Trek adage that the human adventure is just beginning.

Launch of Apollo 11, 16 July 1969 (NASA Photo)

(Interviewed by email)

You became interested in the space program at an early age. Why do you think that was?

Who, alive in 1969, wasn’t caught up in the first manned moon landing?? I’m pretty sure John F. Kennedy didn’t know what he started when he set the USA a national goal of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth before the end of that decade. For one thing, out of the space program came our modern computer/technology age.

When were you introduced to science fiction?

I recall reading a book at primary school called Peter Graves (not the actor from Mission Impossible and Flying High etc). The story involved a scientist developing a substance that allowed one to defy gravity. This must have been my first Sci Fi-ish book. I think other early influences were books by Arthur C. Clarke (from 2001) then the usual greats: Heinlein, Asimov, and others.

When did you become involved in Star Trek and why do you think it had such a strong attraction to so many people?

Star Trek? It was on black & white television. I must have enjoyed because I watched it. I also watched Lost in Space, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and other shows from that era. One memory I have is my siblings and I agreeing that we liked Trek better when they weren’t “horsing around the ship”.

In hindsight now, I’m glad they did the original cast movies. I like them because they show diversity: Sulu got a command, and Uhura did more than answer the telephone. On the local front, as an example of diversity, you guys let me join in and have some fun!

When did you become involved in Austrek?

I was walking past The Ritz Cinema (the Lithuanian Club) in North Melbourne during the late 1970s, when I noticed toward an A3-sized poster for a ‘Dusk ‘til Dawn Star Trek Marathon’. I think at first I dismissed it, but I was feeling restless and adventurous at age 17, so I decided that because I liked the show, I’d like to attend the Marathon. There, I discovered Austrek through the flyers that were displayed on the theatre counter during intermission. I applied for membership because there was the newsletter, magazine meetings if I wanted to attend, and I corresponded with Geoff by post.

What are your most memorable memories of some of the early Austrek people and/or events?

The first meeting I attended was in a church hall in Fairfield, Melbourne. It was my first train adventure on the Hurstbridge line. I was greeted at the Fairfield station exit by one member wearing an Austrek T Shirt, and realized that it wasn’t just me getting off the train for this. At these meetings and at the local Star Trek Marathons, I ended up meeting amazing people, like Diane Marchant, who was corresponding with Gene Roddenberry [Star Trek creator] before I even knew his name.

I just met so many different people across all kinds of kinds of “divides” – whether ethnicity, social class, sexuality, age or whatever. I even met my first trans friend in Austrek, and it just felt right for him. The thing we all had in common was one television show that showed promise for the future.

Hand drawn Xmas card from Paul Murphy, c. 1978. From Geoff Allshorn’s personal collection.

Your cartoons (Jim Kirk Show, etc) were creative and memorable. Do you remember any responses from readers?

I recall that artist Mike McGann from Sydney told me he liked my work, and encouraged me to make a little money selling artwork. I politely declined, amazed that anyone liked my stuff at all.

Another memory, and this is deep: some bloke at a meeting asked me, “Where did you learn to do this?” I did the brush off (“just a bit of fun” etc) but that night I sat in the dark and asked myself exactly where did I learn to do it? They don’t teach you at school. I remembered drawing with my brother, copying at first then changing style. Maybe I absorbed one too many Mad magazines in the 1970’s; thanks to Mort Drucker, I was off on my artistic journey!!!

Spock #5, August 1977. Cover Art by Sue Keck

Diane Marchant once told me that Gene Roddenberry praised your cartoons, and suggested that he could find you work if you ever came to Hollywood…

Yes I do remember Diane sent of a copy of Spock to “The Great Bird of the Galaxy”. I think it was the issue with the red cover. I remember someone telling me this and I hope he got a laugh after all the enjoyment he’s given me with the TV show he created. I had also hoped it would give Diane some cred for Gene to know that his show was having an impact half a planet away in Australia. But offering me work in Hollywood?? I never heard that. I very much doubt I’d have jumped on a plane to Burbank… but stranger things have happened.

Starrag fanzine – content and artwork by Paul Murphy

Why did you create the Starrag fanzine? What can you tell me about it and any responses etc?

Ok, the truth. I suggested it at a Trekcon 2 committee meeting. The idea was if we get it out to a wider audience, we might make money for helping to run the con. The fanzine was a mix of old and new material.

I showed a copy to Merv Binns at Space Age Bookshop, and he agreed to put a couple on display. It wasn’t exactly a shelf clearer. I worked down the road and would sometimes wander up to Space Age Books to check its progress. The fanzine wasn’t moving. I felt disappointed. Oh well, I tried!

A screen grab from the 1975/6 fan film ‘Apollo 19’, courtesy of Paul Murphy.

What preparation did you have for the fan film, City on the Edge of the Yarra ?

I made a Super 8 film called ‘Apollo 19’, which I started in 1975 (‘Sack Kerr’ was written in graffiti on the side of the rocket) and finished in 1976 (which is why the Enterprise makes an appearance). It included every film trick I knew: rear projection, animation, miniatures, even pyrotechnics. I was lucky I didn’t blow myself up! So when Stephen came up with City, I was really good to go – especially using someone else’s money (I think Russell [club treasurer] let Stephen have a budget of around $100, which we spent mostly on purchasing film stock.)

Photo courtesy of Paul Murphy

What do you recall of the making of City?

Stephen asked me to play Spock in his proposed movie. I said yes. I’d already been asked to play McCoy in someone else’s film, but I said yes straight away to Steve. I recall playing Spock when I insisted on having a moustache. This required spirit gum, latex, toilet paper, and heaps of makeup. Taking it off afterwards? OUCH! I shaved. We filmed in the city, and received comments like: “Whatch s’possed to be, Dr Spock?” I remember driving out to Nunawading (Steve didn’t have a car) to get the film hot off the AGFA presses so we could see the “rushes”. I suggested a couple of cheap joke cutaways, and Steve kept them in. Re-doing the tiles by myself in Canberra coz all this new video editing software and I still had the end credit cards. Apart from that, I don’t remember a lot now. Just fun.

City was probably one of the earliest Star Trek fan films ever made. What do you think is its legacy?

Super 8 film movie cameras and young chaps are a dangerous mix. Stephen is a talented fellow and I’m glad I got to collaborate.

Paul recalls some ‘City on the Edge of the Yarra’ tech details:

Shot using AGFA Super 8 film.

100 ASA (an American standard that indicated the film sensitivity to light).

18 Frames Per Second (fps) which is standard for silent film.

Super 8 millimeter film came in cartridges that ran from start to finish.

I read that something plastic could be broken by a screwdriver or similar to allow the film to be rewound a short bit to enable double exposures. I never tried this but Stephen did and succeeded.

Cartridges held 50 feet of film (25 meters) which at 18 fps lasted just under 3 minutes. If you looked around they could be bought for about $5.00.

Stephen had the finished film (approx 400 ft) soundstriped. This means a strip of magnetic tape was glued to each side of the film. Between the sprocket holes one side and the edge on the other. It is on this track that music,sound and dialogue was recorded after editing.

Stephen allowed me custody of the only copy of the completed film reel (I’m amazed he did) to give to an audio/visual lab to have it copied onto video tape – which was a new thing on the home market in 1980.

I assume that because of the sound stripes on the film, the lab assumed it was sound film, so ran it at 24 fps. This is why Stephen sounds like a cross between Maxwell Smart and a chipmunk.

I also assume their equipment used automatic exposure, which took a while to catch up to the picture. Hence dark bits with sound and the bridge scene where Stephen and I appear to be combusting.

This was put on a Fuji L500 Betamax video cassette, and was later captured to computer.

I still had the title cards from 1979 so I scanned these to JPG files and with the original soundtrack replaced the start and end credits.

The emulsion (light sensitive coating on the plastic strip) was visible as grain on the image if overly projected. This is comparable to seeing individual pixels today.

I really can’t get over what’s available today. If we had access to those resources back then, we could have had so much more fun.

Austrek will soon celebrate its fiftieth birthday. What are your thoughts about that?

I feel so old!!! I’m glad it’s ongoing. Austrek is a place for people with a common interest to meet, communicate, interact. Even if it’s just TV and movies guess what guys? You grow up and learn other people’s story too. Not what you signed up for but I see it as a bonus. I’d just like to thank Geoff, Joan and Russell [foundation members] for making this even possible. Austrek was an offshoot of the Melbourne Amateur Science Club (M.A.S.C.) that took off on a life of its own! Who would have guessed?

(Updated on 16 April 2023 to add paragraph about his preparation for the making of the film, and on 20 April 2023 to add Paul’s recollection of ‘City’ technical details.)

©2023 Geoff Allshorn