Sci-fi Fo Fum

How the blood of an Englishman-turned-Texan and the vision of a Gulf Coast misfit have rejuvenated the science-fiction universe.

WALKING THE DEALERS ROOM FLOOR at the Fifty-fifth WorldCon Science Fiction Convention is like watching your supermarket produce section come to life. You dodge bulgy, squashlike body shapes and ample-bottomed conventioneers who, frankly, could cut back a bit on their easy-chair time. And the costumes defy description. It’s hard for the uninitiated to take seriously, for example, the black man in the low-cut red slip portraying “a Klingon Quiet Night—a Warrior’s Softer Side.”

The costumed fans are a harmless bunch who form an enduring image of sci-fi weirdness. And they are only a small percentage of the four thousand devotees attending the international conference at San Antonio’s Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center. Upstairs, luminaries in the worlds of science fiction, fantasy, gaming, and media are sounding off with varying degrees of brilliance. The selection of the Alamo City for last August’s event—also dubbed LoneStarCon 2—was a hearty validation of Texas’ considerable role in the science-fiction community. Providing some of the best moments were Texas writers, including two of the most influential and forceful to emerge from the field today, Michael Moorcock (the guest of honor) and Bruce Sterling.

The science-fiction world circa 1998 is somewhat of a social and artistic ghetto; the writing community is relatively insular. The modern genre, no longer just pulp fiction for clever boys, is a sprawling, stratified conglomeration that defies definition. Tales of swords and sorcery and interplanetary adventures share the stage with alternate histories, graphic novels, dreamlike contemporary fables, and an expanded sci-fi universe that must encompass the phenomenon of the global computer web (a.k.a. cyberspace) as well as the possibility of Earth as post-apocalyptic wasteland. Ben Ostrander of Mojo Press in Austin admits, “I just use the term ‘science fiction’ because it’s immediately recognizable to people. I really think of [modern sci-fi] more as speculative fiction.” Among the six-hundred-plus science-fiction titles published each year are dozens of subgenres. Notes Willie Siros, the owner of Adventures in Crime and Space, an Austin sci-fi and mystery bookstore: “It’s a big, complex field, and you have the entire gamut—really outstanding things and close to unreadable things.” Among the former are the ambitious novels of Bradley Denton and William Browning Spencer (more Austin residents; the town is lousy with writers). Their work is sometimes described as “slipstream,” a term coined by Sterling and another longtime observer of the field, book dealer and collector Richard Dorsett, to refer to writers who fall outside the literary mainstream and are often tagged sci-fi by default. Patricia Anthony of Dallas embraces the term to describe her deftly crafted novels, which mix humor and humanity with techno- and fantasy-driven plots. Nacogdoches’ Joe R. Lansdale and Austin’s Neal Barrett, Jr., and Don Webb work the murder-and-mayhem side of the street. Elizabeth Moon of Florence adheres to traditional themes and likable, quirky characters, sometimes with a hard-edged militaristic bent.

Texas’ fantasy and sci-fi pedigree was established in the thirties by pulp writer Robert E. Howard. From his home in Cross Plains, Howard and his imagination spawned Conan the Barbarian and defined an entire school of sword-and-sorcery fantasy writing. He was tragically unstable; distraught over his mother’s death, he committed suicide at age thirty. But Conan endures, thanks to comics, video games, and Hollywood’s recycling mill.

Kids around the world cut their literary teeth on Howard’s flights of pulp-fiction fancy. One of them was a precocious lad growing up in London during World War II. Young Michael Moorcock loved finding a bombed-out London townhouse and curling up in a dusty sofa to read fantasy adventures. Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard topped the list. “Howard was a huge influence on me,” he says. “In a sense he was a true Texan because, to be truly Texan, you’ve got to have a certain amount of absolutely stark raving visionary quality.” By age 16 Moorcock was the editor of the pulp magazine Tarzan Adventures. At age 24, when he moved on to the science-fiction magazine New Worlds, he acquired several back issues of a rival publication, Astounding, to do his sci-fi homework. He was underwhelmed: “It was the most appalling crap I’ve ever read in my life. It was just bad on every level, including the scientific.” As the editor of New Worlds he turned away from clichéd science-fiction themes and featured instead innovative stories by writers like J. G. Ballard and Brian Aldiss. He contributed his own works too. Soon, they and others—now known as the New Wave—imparted a refreshing literary thrust to the genre; their fiction was more likely to explore alternate visions of society than the far future or outer space, and their influence was worldwide and profound. In turn an American New Wave sprang up, whose proponents included the durable and renowned Harlan Ellison. The New Wave continues to influence writers today. Says Moorcock of the present-day sci-fi community: “It sounds arrogant, but I consider myself its instigator. There’s a point where every innovation that you’ve made becomes a subgenre. It’s a very strange feeling.”

Despite being relegated to the science-fiction and fantasy shelves, Moorcock, now 58 years old, has garnered literary kudos. He has been a finalist for England’s Whitbread Prize, which is comparable to the National Book Award in the United States. He has written more than seventy novels of all stripes, including classic series such as the Dancers at the End of Time trilogy and The Cornelius Chronicles and acclaimed literary efforts such as Mother London (1989). A London Sunday Times critic wrote, “The creator of Jerry Cornelius has been compared by reviewers to Tolkien and Raymond Chandler . . . Charles Dickens and James Joyce. I could throw in Nabokov and Borges . . .” Moorcock is also known for creating the “multiverse”—a version of reality that allows anything and everything to happen anywhere and all at once. Characters in his books pop up in the unlikeliest of places, unhampered by time and space, publisher or plot.

Moorcock’s groundbreaking seminal effort was his 1966 novella, Behold the Man,

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