Before reading The Man From Mars by Fred Nadis, the only thing I knew about Ray Palmer was that he had been the inspiration for the name of the Atom’s–my favorite microscopic super-hero’s–secret identity. Boy, was I in need for some schooling.
Raymond A. Palmer (often called Rap) was a typical boy from Wisconsin, until a horrible accident left him a hunchback for life. With an insatiable appetite for reading–all he could really do during his convalescence–what he lacked in stature he made up for in imagination. He especially liked the amazing stories in Amazing Stories–founded by Hugo Gernsback–a magazine he would one day go on to edit. But along the way he would have a seminal role in creating modern sci-fi fandom. His fanzine “The Comet” came out in 1930, a time when the genre was still the domain primarily of pulp-fiction. Palmer would later be described as the child of science-fiction to Gernsback’s role as the father of science-fiction.
Unfortunately, Palmer’s role might not always be seen as a positive one. In the mid-1940s, while editing Amazing Stories, Palmer began to run less-than-scientific stories that tended more towards the sensational. Although these helped to promote and expand sales of the struggling magazine, the so-called “Shaver mysteries” posited that there was a secret civilization of degenerates living just below the Earth’s surface. The series tell of how the forces of good were in a constant, yet secret battle, with these subterranean forces. Although fine as pulp story ideas go, to help sales, Palmer kept the idea alive that these were in fact true stories, and not fiction.
After leaving Amazing Stories, Palmer would go on to embrace the occult and UFO worlds head on, starting magazines such as Fate, Mystic, and several “true” UFO magazines. These publications would have a long lasting affect on the UFOlogy landscape of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s.
Nadis is deft at explaining many of the complexities in the development of fandom through the eyes of Palmer, leaving it to the reader to make their own judgments as to Palmer’s true legacy as visionary or huckster. However, as is true of many omnipotent narrator biographies, I question how Nadis can know some of the rather intimate details and thoughts of the subject. Yes, this can be seen as necessary backdrop and texture that make the story come alive in a way that a drier narrative might not, but can he really know what was in Palmer’s mind so long ago? If you can deal with this kind of narrative license, though, and you are interested in achieving a better understanding of the roots, foundations, and development of modern sci-fi fandom, then I highly recommend The Man from Mars as an exactingly researched biography of an important and enigmatic character in geek history.
The Man From Mars by Fred Nadis. Penguin/Tarcher, $28.95 (304p) ISBN 978-0-3991-6054-7