MIND MELD: Our Fondest Memories of Science Fiction
When I met Allen Steele at a convention two years ago, he told me a great story about when he first met Robert A. Heinlein. At a previous convention, David G. Hartwell talked about the time Barry Malzberg responded with good humor about a less-than-flattering review Hartwell had given him. There are lots of similarly fascinating stories floating around the minds of writers, and this week we aim to set them free. We asked some of the giants of science fiction to share their stories:
Here’s what they said…
My first Worldcon was MAC—I’d never been to a con. So I packed what I’d wear for a very fancy business trip; I never entered a panel late, and because I was wearing heels, I was late to almost everything. So I saw almost no panels at all.
And the announcement was out that Robert Heinlein wanted SFWA members to really dress for the awards, I saw people in tuxes, and I knew for one event I must surely be underdressed. So I decided to go to the coffee shop and get something to eat. Marion Bradley saw me sitting by myself, took the chair next to mine, asked if I was missing the awards. We’d never met, mind. I said I hadn’t brought anything that fancy, she said she hadn’t either, so we both sat there at the counter, ordered a modest dinner, and just sat and talked for the duration of the event. I read her books. She took the trouble to say hello to a new writer, and we ended up talking about life, the universe, and everything and having a great time. Of course I found out later that my business dress would have been overkill—but I wouldn’t trade the awards dinner for the sandwich at the counter if you’d offered me the fanciest gown at the event.
The only non-negotiable good I ever got out of “being a writer” was the eventual opportunity to meet on a peer basis people whose work I had already truly admired. Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg very early on, Jack Williamson and Clifford Simak a little later, Robert Sheckley and Kathleen Koja later yet. Most recently Ben Cheever who has become a good friend.
That part was nice. The rest of it – I mean all the rest of it – hasn’t been so great.
The first time I signed at an sf convention–though I had a long history of well-attended signings at children’s book conferences–I was put in-between the Berg Brothers as I dubbed them: Robert Silverberg and Barry Malzberg. Folks lined up with huge boxes full of books for the two of them. Their lines were so long, they seemed to meet at a vanishing point on the horizon.
But for me, there was not one single person wanting me to sign. . .anything.
Finally, feeling my pain, Barry’s wife hunted down a book of mine at one of the huckster tables and brought it to me to sign. We chatted for another twenty or so minutes.
I will always be grateful for her compassion and conversation.
I have been writer-in-residence at LaGrange College since 1996. Occasionally, I have some input into which guests the college asks to LaGrange to present “Contact Hours,” for which our students receive cultural-enrichment credits. In 2008, I prevailed upon the Powers That Be to invite Jack McDevitt, a good friend since our first meeting at a Sycamore Hills workshop in Raleigh, North Carolina, in the late 1980s, to give a Contact Hour in Turner Hall, our campus student assembly center.
Jack accepted, and gears began to turn.
First, Jeri and I asked Jack and Maureen to drive to Pine Mountain from Brunswick, Georgia, on our state’s eastern coast, and to spend Monday and Tuesday nights with us, for he would give his presentation on Tuesday, November 4, Election Day.
Jack and Maureen came, and on Tuesday, from 11:15 a.m. to a little after noon, Jack regaled a goodly crowd of students with a host of science-fictional topics, from the size of the cosmos to the places in our universe (beyond our Earth) most likely to prove amenable to life. He talked about chess, exploding stars, and the allure and the danger of religious faith, etc., and yet I also recall him casually working out an outline for this talk on a yellow legal pad a few short hours before the presentation. Even so, he kept our students enthralled, and the seeming off-the-cuffness of his talk added to its freshness, spontaneity, and impact.
Later, we returned to Pine Mountain, having long ago cast ballots in our national presidential contest in our own home counties, to eat dinner and to watch the election returns come in on network television. As the evening wore on, we realized that what had once struck many of our countrymen as an impossibility — i.e., the elevation of a black American to the highest political office in the land — had just come to pass in full-color reality.
As supporters of Obama in a state that he did not carry, we suddenly felt validated, that we had regained our enfranchisement as persons whose opinions once again counted, and that our future as a nation would inevitably improve under this remarkable man. We understood, too, just how much deferred elation the African-American community must feel. In fact, the election results’ clear validation of their voice trumped our sense that we spurned local progressives had finally won one — not for the Gipper, but for all those Americans once enslaved, exploited, and persecuted. Congratulations went around our living room, and neither Jeri nor I will ever forget that we shared that moment with Jack and Maureen McDevitt, caring persons of uplifted hopes satisfyingly similar to our own.
Say what you will about what has ensued since that day, but the moment itself was magical, and no less magical for the fact that some of our neighbors — extremely good friends in a case or two — wanted to think that the Antichrist had landed. I could only think, in response, that the major accomplishment of George W. Bush as a two-term president was to convince a great chunk of our nation’s voters that electing a white male with policies similar to his would prove a greater disaster than dubbing a well-spoken, intelligent, brown-skinned, one-term senator from Illinois instead. Hallelujah.
I occasionally enjoy dramatic events after they are over. For the most part, though, I enjoy ordinary activities: drinking coffee or tea, eating a good meal, sitting and talking with friends in a comfortable environment. As far as I’m concerned, my characters can have and keep the adventures I give them.
Right now, I’d say my fondest memories are of spending time with other SF&F writers, especially the members of my two writing groups. One group meets at a coffee house twice a month, the other meets at people’s houses. The one that meets at houses usually ends with dinner at a restaurant, often Chinese.
I happen to really like workshopping writing and talking about writing and maybe doing a little gossiping about the science fiction writing community.
My one regular away-from-home con is Wiscon. I like to sit in the lounge at the top of the con hotel in the morning, sunlight pouring in, and talk to people I see only once a year. The lounge is also just fine in the rain.
Not all my science fictional friends are writers of fiction or poetry. Some are scholars or critics; some are readers. Writing is hard work, and I am often ambivalent about the result. But – at its best – connecting with people is neat.
- Receiving a fan letter about Ivory from Arthur C. Clarke. It’s been 22 years and I’m still chuffed.
- Jack Williamson showing up for my first Worldcon reading, and telling me to keep at it, that I had a future in this field. He was the first pro who noticed.
- The first Hugo I won. (I was sure I couldn’t possibly beat that field, and certainly not with my very first nomination.)
- My first Guest of Honor gig at a convention. I felt like I’d arrived.
- My first invite to an overseas convention.
- Seeing 9 of “my” discoveries make the Campbell ballot over the years
- Being invited by Isaac Asimov to contribute a story to Foundation’s Friends.
- The first (and every subsequent) time I’ve seen a costume based on my work, heard a filksong based on my work, or seen a film based on my work.
- Collaborating, over the years, with 42 partners. What could be nicer than bonding with a friend and sharing a paycheck?
- Seeing Fiona Kelleghan’s massive 475-page bibliography of my work
- Winning the biggest-money prize in France (well, in the world, actually) for The Dark Lady, a dozen years after it appeared here and sank like a stone
- Finding out from Locus that I’m the all-time leading award winner for short fiction. (I’d always thought of myself as a novelist, who just wrote short stories for fun.)
- Meeting C. L. Moore.
- Making lifelong friendships with my peers.
- And a memorable if not as especially fond one: the first gray-haired guy to come up and tell me he’d been reading me since he was a kid. (How the hell did that happen? I was 23 just last week.)
I’ve enjoyed some of the doors that writing has opened for me to meet heroes or brilliant people. Even more pleasurable have been letters from schoolchildren and college students, citing some work of mine as inspirational. But writing is – at its core – a solitary art. And so, the most vivid moments have happened alone, with my characters, some of whom were (and remain) far better people than I guess I am. The ironies abound — and they help teach me to live amid irony as a fish does in the sea
John Shirley and I took part in a four-hour manuscript critique session. One of the other critiquers was Jack Williamson.
John and I left together, and as we walked along John said, “Jack Williamson really is a grand old man.” I said something intelligent, like “Uh-huh.”
All my life I thought this shit about grand old men was just a bunch of crap, blowing up some old fake, and dammit I was wrong! There really are grand old men. Jack Williamson is the goods!
One of the earliest happy memories that comes to mind is of the first time I attended a science fiction convention; this was in the late 1960s, in Philadelphia. These conventions were entirely new to me, as I didn’t know anything about them until after I had sold my first two stories. Being painfully shy, I was also intimidated by the idea of encountering a number of prominent sf writers at any kind of event. While waiting for a taxi in front of the hotel (as I recall, David Gerrold, who bought one of my first two fictional efforts, had organized a group to go out to dinner), I struck up a conversation with an amiable gray-bearded gentleman, obviously another guest at the hotel, who was regaling me with historical lore about Philadelphia when a couple of other writers joined us, and I discovered that the kindly old gentleman was Lester del Rey.
Had I known that, I would have been much too timid to say anything to him, and I remain grateful for the ignorance that made our enjoyable conversation possible. Another writer who was a joy at that convention was Anne McCaffrey, who was then SFWA Secretary and thus responsible for deciding who qualified for membership, and who was kind enough to admit me to SFWA on the basis of two short story sales, even though neither story had yet been published.
There have been a number of happy moments since then: the first time I was a guest of honor at a Wiscon, in 1991, where my fellow guest of honor Pat Murphy announced the founding of the James Tiptree Award and I found myself at what has remained one of the most stimulating, uplifting, and morale-boosting of sf gatherings and one I’ve attended twice since then; the Nebula banquet in 2000, where I not only met Daniel Keyes, but also got to sit next to him during the banquet, an experience I’ll always treasure; the 2004 Campbell Conference at the University of Kansas, where I met Jack and Maureen McDevitt and was forced to match wits with some of the most gifted writers in the field, among them Joan Slonczewski, Greg Benford, Fred Pohl, Betty Anne Hull, Brian Aldiss, Harry Harrison, Elisabeth Malartre, Kij Johnson, Chris McKitterick, Jim Gunn (of course!), and George Zebrowski (well, I have to contend with him at home, too). But I think the reason that early Philcon came to mind first is that it demonstrated to me, for the first time, one marked characteristic of this field, namely the willingness of older, established figures to welcome newcomers in their midst. Whatever feuds, disagreements, or other upheavals trouble us, sf is still more often than not that kind of community. In recent years, with the increasing demands of what is known as the “real world” separating me from that community far too often, I appreciate it even more, as well as the occasional reminder, such as an invitation to contribute to this Feature at SF Signal, that I am still a part of that community.
Filed under: Mind Meld
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