Fandom at Columbia

Despite the fact that Columbia University educated many of science fiction’s leading writers and editors — Isaac Asimov, James Blish, Groff Conklin, Liz Gorinsky, David Hartwell, Janet Kagan, David Kyle, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Roger Zelazny are just a few of them — there was no science fiction club there until 1966 when Fred Lerner placed a classified advertisement in the Columbia Daily Spectator to see if anyone was interesting in starting a science fiction club.

The resulting Columbia University Science Fantasy Society (CUSFS) came into existence on 15 April 1966, and elected Lerner to the post of Grand Marshall. The names of the two other officers (Petit Marshall and Seneschal) have been lost to history.

(CUSFS was one of the few examples in the history of Fandom where an SF club was the parent organization of a mundane one. The Outing Club Committee of CUSFS was established to use CUSFS's official status with Columbia University to allow the formation of an outdoors-oriented Outing Club, which circumvented university regulations that required a proposed organization to adopt a constitution and elect officers, but did not allow it to meet on university premises until it had achieved official recognition. Once the Outing Club gained university recognition as an independent organization, the CUSFS Outing Club Committee disbanded.)

Soon after Lerner’s graduation in June 1966, CUSFS ceased operation. When he returned to Columbia in 1968 to enter the School of Library Service, he helped to start a new group, the Fantasy and Science Fiction Society of Columbia University. The founding officers of FSFSCU were Fred Lerner, Grand Marshal; Eli Cohen, Petit Marshall; and Joseph Gerver, Acting Seneschal. It published three issues of a fanzine called Akos, available at http://www.fanac.org/fanzines/Akos/. Akos was co-edited by Eli Cohen and Janet Megson (later known as Janet Kagan). Upon Lerner’s graduation from library school in June 1969 Eli Cohen took over leadership of the club.

Until the end of the 1970-71 academic year, FSFSCU held weekly meetings in the Postcrypt (a student-run coffeehouse in the basement of Columbia’s St. Paul’s Chapel). The following year the meetings moved to the Avocado Pit (an apartment near Columbia that Eli Cohen shared with David Emerson, Jerry Kaufman, and Suzanne Tompkins). Meetings were frequently followed by a march down Broadway to the local Baskin-Robbins, where ice cream was consumed and people sang "Baskin-Robbins!" to the tune of the Hallelujah Chorus. During the club’s last year, 1972-73, meetings were held in Fayerweather Hall, a Columbia building. The officers for Spring 1973 were Eli Cohen, Grand Marshal; Elizabeth Rosenblum, Petit Marshal; Fred Lerner, Acting Seneschal (under protest). The club subsequently dissolved, and the fourth issue of Akos was never completed.

FSFSCU was succeeded by the Columbia University Science Fiction Society (which sometimes called itself the Barnard-Columbia Science Fiction society). It was organised in October 1975 by Dani Eder, Richard Lanpin, and Harold Lehmann. It published a short-lived fanzine called Sol III, produced radio and television programs on campus stations, and sponsored speakers and a film series.

In September 1978 the first issue of its newsletter Quandry appeared; with issue #5 (dated “Finals, Fall Semester, 1978”) the title was changed to CUSFuSsing. It was edited by Charles Seelig. Over the years it mutated from a single page bulletin to a substantial fanzine. (An incomplete archive of back issues can be found at http://dbr.nu/cusfs/).

In that period CUSFS met weekly, hosted frequent film screenings in campus spaces, and maintained a large library in Ferris Booth Hall, the student activities center. On 1 April 1978 CUSFS put on a one-day convention called Apricon that attracted about 200 people. Several further Apricons were held at various times until the end of the 1980s.

When Ferris Booth Hall was demolished in 1996 CUSFS lost most of its library space. (Much of the collection went into permanent storage.) Membership dropped steeply and the club was in crisis for a while, but it recovered with coverage by the Columbia Daily Spectator and collaboration with the NYU Science Fiction and Fantasy Club.

In 2014 CUSFS president Flo Doval launched a speaker series that brought Gail Carlson Levine, Naomi Novik,John Joseph Adams, and writers, editors, and artists to Columbia. These attracted large audiences. CUSFuSsing, which had ceased publication sometime in the 1990s, is being relaunched in 2017 as “"more of a literary magazine". A catalog of the club library is available on the CUSFS website (http://www.columbia.edu/cu/cusfs/). Less formal club traditions include an end-of-year banquet, a celebration of Bilbo Baggins’s birthday, and a sacrifice to Cthulhu – an event that "manages to bewilder and amuse many unknowing bystanders".