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.

July 1998By Comments

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, reissued in a thirtieth-anniversary edition by Mojo Press. It’s a classic retelling of the Christ story from the perspective of a time-traveling Englishman. A typical assessment comes from novelist Bradley Denton: “I remember reading Behold the Man and being knocked out by it. Moorcock was definitely an influence on just about anybody who was growing up then and wanted to write science fiction.” The vaguely scandalous denouement (the traveler finds himself on the cross) caused a minor uproar upon publication of the original U.S. paperback. Says Moorcock: “I started getting these death threats, sometimes actually [written on pages] ripped out of the book—and they all came from Texas.” His reaction? “I would send them a dollar—seventy-five cents plus their postage. Dissatisfied customer, give them their money back.”

Rock and roll is a touchstone in Moorcock’s writing and in his life—not surprisingly; it was the musical innovation that paralleled sci-fi’s rebirth. He wrote songs and played with the British art-rock band Hawkwind and the American bombast-rockers Blue Öyster Cult. His offbeat Jerry Cornelius novels were immensely popular reading for London’s hip intelligentsia in the sixties and seventies.

Motivated by family concerns, Moorcock moved to Central Texas four years ago to a small town he refers to as Lost Pines to maintain a measure of privacy. He was welcomed with open arms, and his most basic needs—a reasonable number of good bookstores and restaurants—were served. Still, he grumbles that Texas “is, compared to London, a cultural wasteland. [But] I’m an old whore basically; I can adapt to anything.” He was intrigued by the voices of Texas fiction—literary and speculative—and the attention focused on Austin. He views contemporary Texas writers as myth builders who are “creating a kind of fiction that is very much going to be characteristic fiction of the twenty-first century.” Sterling, for example, he deems “a good visionary—he’s looking at the pertinence of the twenty-first century.”

Although slowed slightly by poor health, Moorcock remains prolific. He’s finishing a quartet of novels about the Holocaust—emotionally draining and wholly literary efforts. He just completed an ambitious comic book series for DC Comics, Michael Moorcock’s Multiverse. Avon Books published The War Amongst the Angels to enthusiastic acclaim last year; the sprawling story features Lucifer, angels, and mad uncle Michael Moorcock from Texas. And Mojo Press recently published Tales From the Texas Woods. “I’m something of a chameleon. I tend to write about places and then settle in them,” he says. “There are certain places that have incredibly strong mythic resonances, and for some reason, although it’s only been around a couple of hundred years, Texas is one of those [places].”

Six time zones and one generation removed from Michael Moorcock’s London childhood, Bruce Sterling was born in Brownsville in 1954 and grew up in the Houston bedroom community of Texas City. His family moved around a bit, and Sterling, like many uprooted kids, made books a huge part of his world. He too read Robert E. Howard’s adventure fantasies, but by his teens he was a huge fan of the British New Wave. His father, a petroleum engineer, moved the family to southern India when he was fifteen. Sterling calls his three years there “a life-changing thing—very common for science-fiction writers, actually. They’ve either lived in some other culture in their youth or else they’re really, seriously sick for two or three years—introduced to a deeply alternate reality and then reintroduced to the first one.”

India provided a different world perspective. He took correspondence courses instead of attending high school—“I’m missing a big chunk of common American experience”—and proved susceptible to a frightening list of Third World and tropical diseases. Tragedy struck when his mother and two sisters died in a plane crash while returning to Texas from India.

When Sterling himself came home—a skinny kid with long hair, wearing a dashiki and baggy blue jeans—he enrolled in the University of Texas at Austin, majoring in journalism. He fell in with a simpatico crowd at the UT Science Fiction Society: “They were some of the few people who I thought were really odd enough that I could get along with them—not waste much time to get them up to speed about my alien background,” he says. The society’s adviser was Chad Oliver, the first published sci-fi writer that Sterling had any meaningful contact with. “He was a hugely influential figure in the early seventies, when my little wannabe writer buddies and I were hanging out on campus trying to get stuff published. He would recite little war stories from his past—the sort of folklore of the field.”

About that time, a group including Steven Utley, Lisa Tuttle, Tom Reamy, and Howard Waldrop inaugurated the Turkey City writer’s workshop (née the Turkey City Neo-Pro-Rodeo). Each writer submitted a story that was critiqued round-table style by the group. It was blood sport—often brutal and vicious. In retrospect Sterling calls Turkey City “a cradle of cyberpunk.” It helped shape his first two books, 1977’s Involution Ocean and 1980’s The Artificial Kid, both of which were greeted with mixed reviews and unremarkable sales. Then, in 1983—writing as “Vincent Omniaveritas”—he launched the inflammatory and now legendary fanzine Cheap Truth. A representative rant from issue one: “As American SF lies in a reptilian torpor, its small, squishy cousin, Fantasy, creeps gecko-like across the bookstands. . . . SF’s collapse has formed a vacuum that forces Fantasy into a painful and explosive bloat.” Sterling now says, “[I was] not only trumpeting my friends, but I was attacking my enemies and making enemies and just generally raising hell. And I think that’s an excellent thing to do when nobody knows who you are and you don’t quite know either.” Despite its short life span (eighteen slim issues) and its tiny mailing list of three hundred or so, Cheap Truth’s audacity had a galvanizing effect. And it certainly helped promote the loose-knit band of sci-fi brigands dubbed “cyberpunks,” featuring Sterling as both Colonel Parker and Elvis.

The cyberpunks were heating up. They hot-wired and retrofitted a genre to suit their noir-ish ideas. Defying the notion of space as the final frontier, archetypal cyberpunk fiction explored the complex relationship between people, computers, and the global community. Often set against a post-catastrophic background, the stories speculated about the ever-changing line where flesh and blood meet and merge with hardware and software. Of necessity, the writers developed their own lexicon. Sterling says, “People use the term ‘cyberspace’ all the time—they don’t know that William Gibson made up that word. They just sort of assume it was always there, you know?”

Like the British New Wave in the sixties, Sterling and others—including Lewis Shiner and Howard Waldrop—were turning science fiction on its ear. Some rejected the “cyberpunk” handle, and even Sterling, once a ringleader, now assigns it to a time and a place that has passed. “It’s very much like asking Allen Ginsberg about ‘beatnik’ in 1972,” he says.

In 1985 Schismatrix, a profoundly weird futurist saga, was a commercial breakthrough for Sterling, and the critical response to The Difference Engine (1991), written with William Gibson, sealed his reputation. In a detailed alternate history, Sterling and Gibson rewrote the Industrial Revolution in England by introducing an imaginary technology in the form of steam-driven cybernetic engines. Sterling earned his success by honing his writing skills. Readers who know him only from the frantic “crammed prose” of his early novels would not recognize him as the lyrical hand behind 1996’s remarkable Holy Fire, a near-future chronicle of an elderly woman’s uneasiness when biotechnology has put immortality within human reach. This November Bantam Spectra will publish Distraction, set in East Texas and Louisiana in the 2040’s. It’s the unlikely tale of a star-crossed affair between a political campaign adviser and a neuroscientist. “Cajuns become top biotechnicians. It’s all about gumbo and oil refining. Anybody who can do gumbo and oil refining can do biotechnology, in my opinion.”

In conversation Sterling exhibits an exquisite intelligence and a crackling wit. He is proud to own up to being a science-fiction writer, a great success in a genre that he hesitantly describes as “a lot like a tide pool. Every once in a while a little fresh water will wash in, but generally it’s a small simmering pond with odd creatures you wouldn’t find in the larger social areas.”

But that pond can accommodate the literary and mythic fantasies of Michael Moorcock’s multiverse as well as Sterling’s unapologetic, cybernetic musings. They are disparate but kindred writers who sparked literary revolutions in the past and continue to inspire visions of the future.

Mike Shea has written for the Austin Chronicle.

Related Content