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Infiltrating the Ranks of Albuquerque's Science Fiction Writers

By Michael Brown

I am about to tell you something that might alarm you. But whatever you do, please remain calm. Do not panic. There is an unusually large colony of science fiction and fantasy writers in Albuquerque. They're living in our neighborhoods. They're shopping in our stores. They're sitting next to us in movie theaters.

But don't bother looking because you probably won't find them. They have assimilated. They look just like you and me. They speak our language fluently. And they even have human names: Laura J. Mixon, Steven Gould, Fred Saberhagen, Melinda Snodgrass, Sage Walker, Robert E. Vardeman. And that's just who I was able to locate. There are many others. Jack Williamson, Walter Jon Williams, Stephen R. Donaldson, Suzy Charnas, S.M. Stirling, Jane Lindskold, Gene Bostwick. They're spreading over the state like the plague!

As a clerk at the Word Farm Bookstore some years ago, I met Vardeman, author of 50-odd books--among them Cenotaph Road and Dark Legacy--and Saberhagen, who claims more than 60 books that span three genres. His most notable are the fantasy Swords series, the sci-fi Berserker series and the horror Dracula series (A Sharpness in the Neck is his most recent publication).

While Vardeman and Saberhagen seemed normal, though, I wasn't so sure about the rest of them. These people write stories with plots that might be likened to a remotely uneasy acid trip. Sure, things are generally tidied up at the end of a good sci-fi novel, but getting to that end requires the reader to willingly vacate the confines of tangible reality.

And so it was with a deep breath and a quick prayer that I descended into the catacombs. My mission was to find out who they are. This, I suspected, could be derived only if I knew who they used to be. Surely, they haven't been science fiction writers their whole lives.

Laura Mixon, author of Astropilots and Glass Houses, proved me wrong. She wrote her first novel, "five pages, with several pages of accompanying crayon illustrations," at the age of eight.

So, OK. There's a prodigy in the ranks. The others, however, were comparatively late-bloomers. Gould, author of Jumper and Greenwar (the latter co-authored with his wife, Mixon), was a database programmer. (As an aside, he admits that he "did explosions but not for money." Gould really likes explosions. "I think all of my books, to date, have explosions in them.") Saberhagen is likewise multitalented: After serving in the Air Force, he worked as a writer and editor for Encyclopedia Britannica and later became an electronics technician. And the only person who ties Saberhagen for the most jobs held is Vardeman. He was a bartender in college, went to work in Sandia Laboratory's solid state physics department (he has a bachelor's in physics and a master's in materials engineering), and after that he managed "the largest seafood restaurant in New Mexico for 18 months."

Walker, whose first book, Whiteout, was published last year, says that "in the mundane world, I'm an M.D. who spent 17 years as an ER doc." And Snodgrass, author of Runespear and Queen's Gambit Declined, is best known for her story editing on TV's "Star Trek: The Next Generation." She was an attorney.

So, we've got some engineers; we've got a doctor and a lawyer; we've got an electronics technician and a solid-state physicist. But now they're all storytellers. Are you sensing the conundrum here? Why on earth would these people give up their high paying jobs to write science fiction, a genre that is not known for high-dollar dealing?

This is a trick question. To assume they woke up one day and flippantly abandoned their affluent lives would leave us with too shallow a view of their existence. Rather, consider that they got into engineering and medicine and law in order to fatten themselves up with the vocabulary necessary for writing science fiction. Remember, this is a genre that permits and even invites its creators to tinker with these exact sciences.

"While all fiction is predicated on speculation," says Gould (meaning that the process of writing begins with a "what if"), "no other form of fiction lets you stretch the 'what if' out of the realm of the here and now." Mixon, likewise, appreciates being able to twist things around and make substantial changes to society and technology, an opportunity afforded her in science fiction.

It's a rather scientific approach to escapism, really, and Walker practices whenever possible. "Sci-fi and fantasy," she says, "are the quickest way to get the longest distance from the workaday world."

Saberhagen prefers to switch between fantasy and science fiction, admitting that he would hate to spend all his time on one series. But Vardeman, who also switches between the two, is of a different opinion: "For all the work I've done, I still enjoy science fiction the best. I started reading it when I was eight, and a good SF book will beat a good fantasy anytime, either to read or write."

Snodgrass deviated from her comrades by saying, "There is a certain hopefulness in it." Is it ironic that the only lawyer in the group identifies an almost humanitarian trait in the genre, or am I typecasting?

Admittedly, this investigation began under a canopy of several stereotypes, the most recent of which stigmatizes these writers as geekish introverts not unlike those who plague Trek conventions and refer to government officials as Zartoks. Regrettably, this assumption carried over into the topic of why they have chosen New Mexico as their fleet headquarters. Los Alamos, Sandia, White Sands, the Very Large Array (VLA), Roswell--locations that exude a certain otherworldliness and that are historically immortalized in science fiction. These writers were summoned home to the land of atomic bombs and technological breakthroughs, right?

"I grew up all over the world," explains Gould, "spending most of my youth in places like Taiwan, Thailand and Hawaii. The operative word here is 'humid.'" As a footnote, he adds, "New Mexico isn't."

OK. But nothing about the VLA, yet.

"I love it here," explains Mixon. "The mix of landscape, culture, and technology are powerful pulls." Well, dang.

"I wouldn't want to live anywhere else," says Saberhagen. "And my theory about the Taos hum is that it results from many, many hot tubs being turned on at the same time." Hey, he mentioned the Taos hum. Now we're getting somewhere.

Snodgrass, who spent a few years in Los Angeles while working on "Star Trek," says, "What I find inspirational is that we live next to and in cultures that are very real, yet which are very different. Yet, this co-existence is not hostile. There is a wonderful sense of community here despite the cultural diversity. I never saw that in L.A."

What was that stereotype again?

Walker was quite blunt in expressing her feelings: "I moved here for the heart-stopping beauty of the damned place!" But what about the Trinity Site?, I had to wonder.

Vardeman, whose answering machine greeting asks the caller to leave battle plans at the beep, was the only one who gave me the answer I was expecting. "(New Mexico) is the closest we can get to Mars." Yes! The terrain--tent rocks, Fourth of July Canyon, White Sands! Go, Bob!

"I've tried most of my life," he continues, "to communicate the beauty of the desert and mountains and the strange, wonderful light we get sometimes at sunset to the peculiar people who like high humidity, miserable winters and worse summers. Serenity, isolation, stark beauty intermingled with strange lifeforms (I'm referring to lizards and the like rather than reported space aliens near Roswell) all intrigue me."

Suddenly, the stereotype vanished. As swiftly as that alleged spaceship zipped into our airspace 50 years ago, my state pride soared. I hung it on the flagpole for a few days and dared my Texas relatives to knock it down. What a great thing to say about New Mexico. Can we blame space aliens for visiting?

And speaking of space aliens leads me to a different stereotype. Surely, these writers are planning to attend the 50th anniversary of the UFO crash in Roswell this summer. Surely, they religiously support SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), and they undoubtedly consider the whole crash thing a monumental breakthrough for the ailing organization.

Yep, just as surely as I'm the pope.

"My wife was born in Roswell," admits Gould, "and she's not quite 40 so she probably didn't have anything to do with the crash. But just in case, we're not going anywhere near Roswell. Why? Is there an explosion planned?"

"Nah," says his wife, Mixon, when asked the same question. "Life's too short." And Snodgrass, well, she was downright curt: "Not on your life."

Saberhagen also doubts he'll attend. "I was stationed at the base near Roswell, but somehow never came across that hangar with the alien bodies."

"Oh, dear, no," exclaims Walker, with a comparatively sympathetic tone. "I do hope the locals survive all this nonsense with reasonable humor and pick up a few bucks here and there from it."

And again, we arrive at Vardeman, whose book titles are peppered with words like "Omizantrim," "sundered" and "intergalactic orgy."

"I wrote for information and decided against it. Paying $10 per lecture, seeing people dressed up funny, going to patches of desert (any of the five) where a UFO might have crashed or been shot down--none of that seemed like much fun. The only event that lent itself to my strange sense of fun was the flying saucer pancake eating contest, no doubt followed by projectile vomiting. But as appealing as it might be seeing people stuff dozens of Unidentified Food Objects into their mouths, then barf, I decided to pass."

OK. Looks like I've done a damn fine job of creating an elaborate fantasy about these people, which I suppose sums up this entire investigation. While I went looking for the cyborgs that populate their novels, I came back feeling like an old friend of the family. They really are a pretty cool bunch of people. They're just like the rest of us, really, and they take pretty good care of each other, too.

"The field of science fiction in general is very supportive," says Mixon. "There's quite a 'collegial' aspect to it. Bigger name/older writers mentor younger writers, run workshops, etc. Now, of course, we are all a bunch of opinionated, egotistical, bipolar and ill-socialized twitchy maniacs, but that's just an occupational hazard." You know, that hits pretty close to home. Perhaps they're more assimilated than I originally thought.

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