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Next Stop, Twilight Zone?

By David Streitfeld
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 10, 1998

  Style Showcase

BALTIMORE—Do apes have souls?

It's a question Connie Willis wonders about, but that she can't bring up with the other members of her church choir. They'd look at her funny. Which is reason enough for her to travel two thousand miles and spend five days here, discussing any and all topics at the 56th World Science Fiction Convention.

Did Shakespeare have a hand in the King James Bible?

That's something else Willis can't debate with the neighbors back in Greeley, Colo. But at science fiction conventions, "I've never heard anyone respond, 'Why on Earth would anyone be interested in that?' They may have some bizarre theory that aliens wrote the King James Bible, but they're interested. Science fiction readers are always interested in everything."

And they're interested in talking about it. Until late yesterday afternoon, by which point everyone's jaw had stopped functioning, writers chatted with readers, editors, fans, critics. The schedule of panels and events, printed out from the convention Web site, fills 85 pages. Millions of words were produced and consumed by the 5,000 attendees, some of whom felt inspired to show up in costume, including the obligatory characters from "Star Wars."

Is science fiction dying?

That's one of the few questions that Willis doesn't wonder about. "People have been talking about the death of science fiction since I got into the field," back in the mid-'70s, she said.

But the question was hard to escape here. Science fiction has always been highly self-conscious and self-critical, but surely none of the 55 previous world conventions had this level of morbidity.

One of the very first panels was about whether the big convention was becoming a thing of the past, given the decreasing number of young fans and the balkanization of the science fiction community. This was followed by a panel about how science fiction had taken over movies and television and lost its soul in the process.

Science fiction, said moderator George R.R. Martin, used to live "in the corner of our popular culture. My father called it 'that crazy stuff.' . . . The whole culture looked on it that way."

Now, the novelist noted, every cable system carries the Sci-Fi Channel. Movies about huge asteroids hitting the Earth are routine. Commercials use outer space motifs. From "The X-Files" to "The Truman Show," Hollywood loves science fictional motifs. And a walk through Toys R Us quickly demonstrates that science fiction toys have seemingly taken over the business.

And yet. "Written science fiction is struggling. . . . Writers can hardly make a living," Martin said. No science fiction writer regularly makes the bestseller lists for original work. Many of the best writers in the field are having a hard time even getting published. Meanwhile, there's a huge tide of printed sludge tied in to movies and TV shows.

For Martin, Willis and most of the others here, books still possess a holy power they're losing elsewhere in the culture. Novels, Willis said, are the key to a civilization: "When we meet the aliens, the first thing they'll want to do is read our books."

Oh, great. It'll probably be an insipid "Star Wars" novel. If the aliens have any sense at all, they'll go straight home.

A Small Circle of Friends
When the first science fiction conventions were held a half century ago, they quickly became a way for the cult to perpetuate itself. If you wanted to read certain key stories or novels, you couldn't find them anywhere but at a con. And if you wanted to meet people who had read the same stories you did, you had to come.

To a certain extent, the Baltimore convention continued to perform this function. The smallest organized gatherings were called kaffeeklatsches, where up to 10 people could sign up to sit around a round table and drink coffee with their favorite writer.

So it came to pass that a group of seven admirers of Barry M. Malzberg gathered together. This was a good showing, considering Malzberg has been largely inactive for about 15 years. In the early '70s, however, he was a key writer, producing countless stories and novels on certain obsessive themes: the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the misguided space program, the impossibility of turning science fiction into literature.

It was a convivial group, these six men of varying ages and one older woman. Everyone liked each other immediately, and they dubbed themselves the Church of Malzberg. There was just one problem: Malzberg himself never showed up. The strange and wonderful thing is, that turned out not to matter much.

Sure there was disappointment, but no anger. The acolytes spent the hour discussing Malzberg's works, turned to a spirited debate about the merits of another writer, Mike Resnick, and whether big conventions are better than little conventions.

For a really small convention, someone suggested, how about one in honor of Malzberg himself? Call it AngstCon. The only movie that would be shown was the Zapruder film, of course; if anyone had sex at the con, it would be bleak, disappointing, unfulfilling sex, just like in a Malzberg book.

As the hour drew to a close, one of the fans said, "Let's hope Barry recovers from whatever kept him away," a sentiment the others echoed. Then, having come together for only one hour, the seven-person Church of Malzberg disbanded, probably never to meet again.

Confirmation Proceedings
"I hate adulation," Joe Haldeman was saying. "It's embarrassing. I'd rather my readers admired me from a distance."

Boy, was he in the wrong place. Yonder was Camden Yards. If they announced Haldeman's name during a game, no one would look up. But in the small, self-selected universe of science fiction, he couldn't walk five feet without being stopped by an admirer.

If any outsider were to stumble in to the Baltimore Convention Center and needed proof, he could look at Haldeman's chest. There, like all his fellow con-goers, he wore an admission badge, but whereas most said simply "Member," Haldeman's was festooned with ribbons that reached nearly to his waist.

"Past Hugo Winner," said one, meaning he had won the field's highest award (in Haldeman's case, a couple of times). "Hugo Nominee," meaning he was up for another one here. "Program Participant," which meant he was on numerous panels. "Past GOH," meaning he was guest of honor at a previous convention.

Like Connie Willis, whose 1992 time-travel novel, "Doomsday Book" won both plaudits and many readers, Haldeman is one of the more esteemed writers in the field. His first novel, "The Forever War," appeared in 1975 to widespread acclaim, winning the top awards and becoming a classic – a story about a stupid, bloody war being fought against aliens from the constellation Taurus.

Haldeman set it in the future, which is already our past: The novel begins in 1997. But like most science fiction, it wasn't really about the future. It was about the present, in particular Vietnam. Despite being science fiction, "The Forever War" is considered one of the best Vietnam novels and has sold hundreds of thousands of copies in paperback.

Haldeman's instinct is to reject the current arguments about the death of the field. "They were talking about the death of science fiction back in the '40s. It's our version of mainstream literature's claims about the death of the novel. But novels continue to be written, and so does science fiction."

Still, he knows where to assign blame. "George Lucas, without any malice at all, destroyed traditional science fiction by turning it into something else. 'Star Wars' was a wonderful movie, but it's not science fiction. It's fantasy. There's no science, no extrapolation in it. Yet it changed the perception of the average reader as to what science fiction is."

Accordingly, the life of even a successful writer of traditional science fiction is an uneasy one. "The worst written 'Star Trek' novel is going to make more money for a publisher than a book I spend two years on," the 55-year-old Haldeman said. "Publishers say the movie and television tie-ins keep science fiction profitable, so they can afford a few luxuries like me."

All the more reason for Haldeman to go, however unwillingly, to conventions – about 10 a year. "I meet my editors so I can keep visible, so I'm always a person, not just a voice on the phone or the name on a contract."

He was up for a Hugo award for his novel "Forever Peace," a kind of thematic sequel to "The Forever War." He felt uneasy about wanting it. "I've won the award. I've had a lifetime's worth of approval. I don't need more. Yet here I am, worrying, wondering whether I'm going to win it or not. I guess it's about confirmation, that I'm still in the game, still a writer to contend with."

It seems he is. Twenty-two years after he won the award for "The Forever War," he won it again Friday night. At the ceremonies, he choked up a bit, and then said in another 22 years he planned to make a photocopy of the classic romance "Forever Amber" and see if he could win with that.

Fanning Out
Asking the single question that writers most dread hearing, a fan inquired of a group of novelists: "Can you read my manuscript and give me some tips because I don't want to get a real job?"

Connie Willis didn't pause at all before responding: "Yes, I will."

It was a lie, of course, but then Willis was expected to lie. One function of the convention is to put the writers through their paces, to show their fans how they react while under pressure and reveal something of their personalities. This was the function of the Liars' Panel, which was held in a room so crowded it was doubtless in violation of the fire code.

"I'm Monica Lewinsky," said Willis in introducing herself. "I would like to explain to you why I kept the dress, but unfortunately I have not been able to come up with a single good reason."

The crowd roared. One woman in the front row, with a button on her backpack that proclaimed, "If It Harms None, Do What Thou Will," took off her shoes and socks and delightedly wiggled her toes.

Many of the subsequent jokes are unprintable and much of the rest is so rooted in the field that they're impossible to explain, but generally the panel bears out Willis's contention that "science fiction people are the funniest in the world. You know the way Steve Martin says in 'Roxanne,' 'We don't do irony here. We smoke dope while skiing topless, we just don't do irony'? They do irony here. And wit."

And really bad puns. Another panel, "I Can Explain That," forced five authors to come up with rapid explanations for science fiction cliches. How, someone shouted, does an anti-gravity machine work?

"If you're careful with it," answered Jack McDevitt, "it will never let you down."

If the universe is so vast and full of miraculous things, why would aliens bother to come all the way here?

Charles Sheffield took that one. "Actually, they go everywhere. But we only notice them when they come here."

All of this performing has unexpected feedback for the writers. Says Willis: "I've never ever done a reading or a panel and had someone not come up to me and say, 'I've never heard of you, but now that I saw you, I'm going to go buy one.' "

Usually, the place they start is "Doomsday Book," a long novel about a time-traveling historian who gets caught up in a plague during the English Middle Ages. It is so well researched and compelling that it won widespread praise not only inside but outside the field.

The 52-year-old Willis has written about a dozen other books, most recently "To Say Nothing of the Dog," a science fiction novel masquerading as a Victorian epic. On Friday afternoon, she patiently signed copies of her books for all comers, just as dozens of other writers did during the course of the convention. And not just books but T-shirts, encyclopedias opened to the appropriate entry, autograph books and convention programs.

"I'm worried," said horror writer Edward Bryant, patiently scribbling his name, "that as soon as I sign the last unsigned copy of my books, I'll die."

When Minds Collide
If good written science fiction is threatening to become an extinct form, up there on the shelf with the sonnet and the villanelle and the epistolary novel, no one at this gab fest came up with any sure-fire ways to prevent it.

David Brin, best known as the author of the novel "The Postman" – most recently a widely vilified Kevin Costner bomb – is trying harder than most. He wants new blood in the field, and appeared on several panels debating how to get teenagers hooked on classic works like Robert Heinlein's young-adult tales "Citizen of the Galaxy" and "Farmer in the Sky."

"Think of what it would take to figuratively stand outside the schoolyard in a trench coat, open it up and say, 'A little Heinlein, girl? The first one's free,' " Brin said, adding: "We are a cult. Why aren't we proselytizing?"

Never mind that a basic credo of science fiction is an open-minded, live-and-let-live policy. "We have to go forth and crush every world view that doesn't believe in tolerance and free speech," Brin exclaimed.

Gordon Van Gelder, the editor of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, had a more cautionary view. "You once had to come to a convention to find the old books. Now you can get them on the Internet. Some of the other things people got out of science fiction fandom, like the sense of community, they can get off the Internet as well. Science fiction used to be arcane, and nothing is arcane anymore."

These folks will never have a meeting of minds – which might be a good sign.

"It isn't until you get a consensus of what can and cannot be done that something begins to die," said novelist Michael Swanwick. "This crowd cannot agree on anything. It's anarchy – which is a productive environment for art."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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