Science Fiction Authors Invade Small Town: Photo Essay
(Illustration "Settlement Out of Court" by Ed Emshwiller from Galaxy Science Fiction, July 1953.)
A Weekend of Science Fiction
Roswell, the renowned crash-landing site of an alien spaceship, is only a two-hour drive from Portales, New Mexico, the Peanut Capital of the World. What is not as widely known is that for the past thirty-six years, creators of alien worlds and beings have been gathering every spring on the campus of Eastern New Mexico University to pay homage to one of their own and also the town's favorite son, Science Fiction Grand Master, Jack Williamson.
(Image courtesy of ENMU Monday Memo. Statue of Jack Williamson presented to the university by Chinese students.)
He was a brilliant and daring pioneer of the genre whose prolific canon that spanned nine decades inspired legions of other writers and coined probably half of science fiction's concepts and jargon such as genetic engineering, terra forming, and the idea of human-machine hybrids. Here is a link to his amazing lifetime of writing:
Did I mention that Dr. Williamson was also a beloved and inspiring professor at the university? He taught English and wrote award-winning science fiction until he was in his mid-nineties. Although Williamson died five years ago, the legacy of his lectureship lives on with noted authors from around the globe convening on his home turf for readings, panel discussions, and a workshop for teen writers of science fiction.
"We are not from here."
It's true that the visitors who swept into town for the weekend's events are hard to spot. Science Fiction writers look just like normal people and freely admit that the only discernable difference between them and those of us from this conservative community is that they are the ones who have "bad bumper stickers." This year's distinguished panelists were Connie Willis, Carrie Vaughn, Daniel Abraham, Steven Gould, Stephen Haffner, Darynda Jones, Joan Saberhagen, Melinda Snodgrass, Ian Tregellis, and Walter Jon Williams. The gracious people on campus led by Dr. Patrice Caldwell and indeed folks all over Portales welcomed them warmly on behalf of Jack Williamson.
The New Grand Master
Here is a clever disguise. This refined and demure looking lady holding a comemorative Nambe platter presented by ENMU, is the group's Grand Master and expedition leader to this desolate and arid land, Connie Willis.
Grand Master of Science Fiction is a recent honor bestowed upon Willis, who has written many award winning books known for their comedy of manners and imaginative complexity. Her latest novel, All Clear, was the winner of both the Hugo and Nebula Awards last year.
Tears for the Departed Master of Grand Masters
(Photo of Jack Williamson with Connie Willis in 2003 by ENMU Monday Memo.)
A lady with a ready smile, she turned tearful during her keynote speech at a pleasant luncheon held on Friday in the campus ballroom. She wished that her longtime mentor and friend, Jack Williamson, had lived to see her follow in his footsteps as Grand Master of Science Fiction.
"We have traveled from great distances."
In her speech, Willis continued to praise the Lectureship saying how much it meant to her and the other writers to honor Jack Williamson. "We are not from here," she said. "We traveled great distances and so you know we think the world of Jack and that Portales is very special." The local spectators were surprised when she named the five major attractions in our town for which she said the writers had a great deal of interest. As a long time resident, I was impressed at how these strangers were able to hone into the hidden jewels of our community. We learned what they came here for: Jack Williamson, the art, the kids, and the food.
The science fiction writers, it was no surprise, liked the libraries--the Portales Public Library as well as the Golden Library on campus. I always loved the idea of The Golden Library. It's very name evokes beautiful treasured books of unfathomable wonder even though I know it was dedicated to a Dr. Floyd Golden, one of the founders of ENMU. Willis, said that there would be a workshop for young writers about dialogue held at the public library on Saturday.
Another site of interest to the sci-fi writers, she said, was located in the administration building on the campus of the university-- the gorgeous and newly restored mural by Lloyd Moylen that I wrote about not too long ago here at the Open Salon:
The United State Post Office appealed to them because it, too, has a distinctive mural by Santa Fe artist Theodore Van Soelen that was commissioned by the WPA and depicts subtly stylized buffalo, a species that is all but extinct, caught in a rainstorm.
Portales is not known for its cuisine, but the sci-fi writers have known for years about Mark's, the little cafe near campus where I meet with my friends for a weekly lunch. She reminded the audience how Williamson regularly ate the juevos rancheros there and recalled that one year Harlan Ellison famously asked to be served bacon made from free-range pigs. My friend Dr. Oviedo noted that the writers were in and out of the restaurant all weekend using it as a kind of base camp.
The final Portales go-to spot is the Dairy Queen for a local specialty made with peanuts. As Willis enumerated our special places, we Portalesanos couldn't help but feel efficiently infiltrated by the science fiction writers.
Understanding the Genre of Urban Fantasy
The two main authors who spoke at the luncheon are writers of the subgenre of Science Fiction known as Urban Fantasy. Carrie Vaughn, bestselling author of the Kitty Norville series, explained the importance of understanding niche in writing. I, like many others, thought that Urban Fantasy was any fantasy set in a city like Bladerunner that was based on a story by Phillip K. Dick. Vaughn pointed out that the elements that make up Urban Fantasy have been around since Jane Austin's Necromancer of the Black Forest.
(Carrie Vaughn holds the plaque presented to her by Patrice Caldwell at the Sci-Fi luncheon. She noted that the Clovis point looks like the Star Trek symbol for The Enterprise.)
The very pretty and petite author explained that Urban Fantasy, the hottest market in publishing, is a rather large umbrella where the lines are blurred between the normal and the monstrous but that its main requirement is a "kick ass heroine." The difference between a "paranormal romance" like Twlight and urban fantasy is that in the paranormal romance, the couple gets together whereas, in Urban Fantasy,no.
Hugo winner and a prolific Albuquerque author, Daniel Abraham's speech on the same subject took a different approach. He acknowledged that genre writing is despised among the literati but people buy it! It is a class issue. If he wanted to impress people with his reading material, he would have on display Stephen Hawking's treatise on time, a book he owns but has never read. Science Fiction has low prestige because there is no social advantage to reading it for it is nothing but pure escape.
He explained that what we escape from tells us what we are escaping to and pointed out that Romance is the queen of all genres because humans have a deep fear of being lonely and loveless. Romance like Urban Fantasy is strictly formulaic and any violation of the form equals punishment. The writer broke the covenant with his reader.
Like Vaughn, Abraham acknowledged the hot weaponized woman in the bustier bringing violence and control to a safer world with her intellect (see image above). The formulas often have social purpose. He points out that the UF heroine has no real ambition because that would be evil, instead the situations are thrust upon her.
Her primary relationship is with a man and she acts solo in her pursuits of justice. There are no groups of women working together. She has no loss of femininity while freeing us from fear. These traits say much about today's women, power, gender, and sexuality. One has only to look at women's recent fight for reproductive rights to know that woman's work is not yet done. He concluded that Science Fiction in its many permutations opens up countless avenues to dream and that often reality can fill that space.
(Speaker Daniel Abraham with fellow author Antony Oldknow who is also on The Williamship Lectureship Organizing Team.)
After luncheon, participants had the opportunity to buy books by the authors and have them signed. Because I am on a budget this year, I didn't look at any of the books displayed on the long table. A sad confession is that I don't read much science fiction anymore and so it is hard to justify purchasing more of that genre. I already have a full shelf of all my sci-fi favorites and so I turned away and headed to Golden Library, a quiet place to get away from the crowd. I regret not picking up Connie's new book, though. Maybe next year.
As ever, it is always a pleasure to enter the campus library. In the summer the walkway is fragrant with many Russian olive trees just now beginning to sprout.
Golden Library's shimmering magic was ever present. Look what I found in the lobby. The Special Collections was getting rid of some books from the Science Fiction section and they were for sale! Most volumes were one dollar. It was wonderful to have an unexpected sci-fi fix at a very deep discount.
Here are the books that came home with me. Lovely hardbacks with nicely designed dust jackets: There will be Time and Three hearts and Three Lions by Poul Anderson, Approaching Oblivion by Harlan Ellison, and Mr. Adam by Pat Frank.
I found some pulps from 1950s through the 1970s--Galaxy Science Fiction. These old magazines contain original stories by many science fiction greats including Jack Williamson.
Here's an odd assortment of paperbacks by some of my favorites.
For the Youth: About Dialogue
Connie Willis and Steven Gould, author of Jumper filmed in 2002, led the workshop for teen writers of science fiction at the public library on Saturday morning. Seven participants showed up for the workshop about the secrets of writing good dialogue. Willis was once a teacher and it showed in her engaging lesson that began with a discussion of some of her favorite television shows and why she liked them: Primieval and Alice. These are programs that the students also watch and so the conversation was animated by the enthusiasm of her young listeners.
In addition to teaching the correct punctuation for various configurations of dialogue including the interrobang, students were taught the key importance of subtext because Willis explained that conversations are rarely about what they are about. Dialogue about what it's about is boring, she declared.
Students were assigned to write ten lines of dialogue with given subtexts: wanting to commit murder, being in love, having to go to the bathroom. In only fifteen minutes, clever dialogues were composed and presented before the group with lively constructive criticism. As a longtime teacher, I would have added some fun Tom Swiftys to explain why the simple word, "said," is the standard choice for engaging in dialogue.
I learned something from the workshop, too. Internal dialogue should be written in italics otherwise readers are confused that something might have really happened until they get to the end of the passage that explains that it all was a thought.
In fact, consideration of the reader was the major theme of the workshop. Everytime a reader has to look up a difficult word or stop to decipher a confusing passage, he is taken out of the story and that is undesireable. The best authors want their readers to forget that they are reading and feel like they are actually there in the midst of the action.
After the workshop, Steven Gould and Connie Willis chatted with parents who were allowed to watch the action from the back of the classroom.
The students enjoyed the workshop because there was a lot of laughter that went along with the learning. Here are two of the participants smiling for the camera after their dialogue indoctrination by a master of the form.
On the way home from the library, I thought I would stop by the Dairy Queen for the menu item that the science fiction writers couldn't get enough of--the feul that they ordered before leaving our town and returning from whence they came.
A local specialty--The Peanut Buster Parfait!