The Wayward Time-Traveler: In the Garden of the Demigods

There is nothing quite like the discovery of science fiction. Somewhere in the world, a youngster is attracted to a book the way a planet is drawn to a star. It is something they haven’t quite seen before. It doesn’t take place in the mundane world that they’ve become familiar with. Instead, it takes place in fantastic worlds out among the stars. Whole universes are born in those pages. Firsthand glimpses of the planets of our solar system, as well as adventures to distant parts of the galaxy. Alternate earths take shape. We find that we can travel backwards and forward in time. Indeed, as a burgeoning fan of science fiction, we find that we have truly become wayward time travelers.

As we progress further along that gravity well we call science fiction we soon become familiar with the names of the people who create those worlds. And if we stick with it, if we love it enough, those people sometimes transcend the heroes they write about, becoming themselves demigods to us. For some of us, their influence is so strong, their gravity well so powerful, that we want to be just like them. Fortunately, science fiction is a pay-it-forward genre, unlike almost anything else out there. Our heroes welcome interaction and encourage participation. And when you finally get to meet some of them, well, it really is like taking a walk in a garden of the demigods.


My favorite science fiction writer–my ultimate demigod–is Isaac Asimov. I never got to meet him. He died just as I was reengaging with science fiction. It is among my deepest regrets that I never got to meet him. But I promised myself that I would not let that happen with other writers I admired.

I met Harlan Ellison for the first time in July 1995. He was giving a talk at the Learning Tree in Northridge, California, near where I lived at the time. I’d read and admired much of what he’d written during my last two years in college. During his talk that day, he read a story that he’d just finished writing. It was fresh off the typewriter. It was called, “Midnight in the Sunken Cathedral”. Have you ever heard Harlan Ellison read? If not, go find a recording. It is about the most incredible thing I’ve ever heard. I nervously approached him afterward and asked him to sign a few books. It was my first encounter with a demigod.

During the mid-1990s I lived not far from the famous Dangerous Visions bookstore in Sherman Oaks, California. There would often hold book signings and in December 1998, I met Ray Bradbury there. He signed my copy of Something Wicked This Way Comes, one of my all-time favorite books. He wished me a merry Christmas, too, and he seems so jovial and cheerful, as if he were Santa Claus handing out packages to giddy little children.

I didn’t attend my first science fiction convention until after I’d sold my first story. It was RavenCon in Richmond, Virgina, and the guest of honor was Robert J. Sawyer, whose novels I’d always enjoyed, especially Calculating God, Hominids, and Rollback. I nervously approached him after a reading, and handed him my copy of the October 2006 Analog (containing part 1 of Rollback). He looked at my badge to see who to make it out to and when he saw my name, he said, “Jamie Rubin? Congratulations on your story sale. A bunch of us writers are going out for dinner tonight? Why don’t you join us?” What had happened was that my good friend Michael A. Burstein had told Rob that I was going to be there and that I’d just sold my first story. Rob’s kindness–well, that’s just the way he is. It’s that pay-it-forward attitude that makes science fiction so special. That was one amazing dinner, sitting next to Rob’s wife, Carolyn, across from Rob, and beside Edmund Schubert and David B. Coe (with those two whispering to me repeatedly, “Are you taking it all in?”) I must have looked wide-eyed and ridiculous, but I truly felt like I was in that Garden among the Demigods.

At Readercon in 2008, I met another one of my all-time favorite writers in person for the first time, Barry N. Malzberg. Barry has written not one, but two books that rank among my favorites, Beyond Apollo and The Engines of the Night. Barry was incredibly kind to me then as he has been ever since. We roamed the hotel parking lot in the hot New England summer talking science fiction. We did it again two years later at Readercon in 2010, and I’m looking forward to doing it yet again this coming July. It is a remarkable feeling, moving through this garden.

I’ve been fortunate to meet Scott Edelman, who edited my favorite magazine of the 1990s, Science Fiction Age. He graciously signed my premier issue; and during the magazine’s 8-year run, he also printed two of my fan letters, the first two I ever wrote to a science fiction magazine.

Despite being a writer in my own right, I still see myself as a fan first. And the interactions I have with these writers thrills me as much today as it did the first time I met Harlan Ellison. I’ve sat in a bar and talked about old science fiction magazines with Allen Steele. I’ve chatted briefly about system administration with Charles Stross. I’ve nervously approached the likes of Ellen Datlow and James Morrow for autographs–and this is well after I’d sold a few stories.

If you are a baseball fan, you may be able to get a player to sign a ball for you. You may get a basketball player to sign a jersey or a hockey player to sign a puck. But when you are a science fiction fan, the heroes of our genre go out of their way to sign books, to take pictures with you, even simply to chat. I signed up for a koffeeclatch at Readercon 21 just to that I could sit at a table with Jack McDevitt and several other fans and talk science fiction. It was amazing.

What about you? What stories do you all have to tell about your walks within the garden of the demigods?

5 thoughts on “The Wayward Time-Traveler: In the Garden of the Demigods”

  1. I went to Copenhagen in 2007 in order to meet my favourite author Anne McCaffrey. (Who of course wrote the likes of ‘Dragonflight’, ‘Restoree’ and ‘The Crystal Singer’, and who was the first woman to win the Hugo Nebula awards).

    There was a banquet for 50 or so guests where she was presented with a ’40 Years of Pern’ liber fanorum.

    Anyway, to cut a long story short her taxi didn’t arrive, and the chap who said he’d give me a lift back to my hotel ended up also giving Anne a lift (since the two of them knew one another)…since it turns out we were staying at the same place. As if that wasn’t enough, Harry Harrison was also given a lift. So there I am, sitting in a car with two giants of Sci-Fi, chatting about travelling experiences.

    Surreal, but absolutely awesome. :)

  2. Thanks, Jamie.

    I never got to meet any of my own genre Demigods.  

     

    Like you, Asimov was amongst those demigods, but there were others. Roger Zelazny, Jack Vance, and Arthur C. Clarke, just to name some seminal ones. 

    I’ve done better in meeting writers more recently…but alas, those who helped form my tastes?  None, alas.

  3. When I was a kid, in the 1970’s, my demigods were Harry Harrison, Harlan Ellison, Michael Moorcockand Chris Foss. The only one I met was Harry Harrison when I was about 11 or 12. He was doing a book signing at Space Age books, which no longer exists, in Melbourne, Australia. The fan in front had two suitcases worth of books to be signed and he eyeballed Harry in total silence for the whole time. The fan then closed the suitcases and left without a word of thanks.

    I plunked down 3 books, being the first three Stainless Steel Rat novels, and Harry looked up at me and asked “Is that it?”

    In reply I said, with as straight a face as I could muster while I was quite nervous inside. “No, there’s a semi-trailer full parked out in the street.”

    This drew a laugh and a handshake, and this memory has always stuck with me.

     

  4. Paul, that’s an impressive list of demigods there. Very good examples.

    Ben, funny, I’ve been in lines like that where people are carting libraries worth of books, expecting every one of them to be signed, and not even a whisper of gratitude. And the books probably end up on eBay. I never met Harry Harrison, but from the comments so far, he’s clearly one of those people who welcomed the interaction.

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