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By Adrienne Martini, Claiborne K.H. Smith, Jeremy Reed, Monica L. Piņon, and Sarah Hepola

Worldcon in San Antonio
Aug. 28-Sept. 1

OCTOBER 6, 1997:  I was a science fiction convention virgin. Fear had kept me so pure for so long. I've been reading speculative fiction, both the hard and the soft stuff, since I discovered that Animal Farm was about more than talking animals. Friends of mine went to the Cons, met all of the authors I so dearly loved, and had a great time, but I was too afraid to look like an awestruck geek and just couldn't commit. All of the pictures in my head, pictures of science fiction fans running about with Spock ears or discussing the latest theories of particle physics or trying to read my aura didn't help. Cons were a scary alternate dimension that I was insanely curious about because the only way to get access to my favorite authors is through these bacchanalian, writer-worshipping rituals.

Or, as I discovered years later, author access can also be gained by working in the press and the whole Con route can be sidestepped. Granted, the press is an entity that is both loved and loathed by your average convention-loving science fiction fan. Sure, the publicity can get packs of paying customers through the door, boosting receipts and prestige of the event. The media, however, also tends to paint unflattering portraits of geeks who revel in their geekness at the Cons. But, in my opinion, if you are gong to do the whole Babylon 5 hair thing, you should expect a certain number of sideways glances.

Regardless, I took a deep breath, got off of my high horse, and went to my first Con. Never one to start small, I traveled to Worldcon, the granddaddy of them all, held in San Antonio over Labor Day weekend and the perfect place to lose that small scrap of my intellectual snobbishness that I had held on to for far too long. Bring on the ratty T-shirt with a punny phrase, fit me for a pair of glasses with tape over the bridge, and shorten my pants two inches. I'm goin' in.

I immersed myself in Hugo nominee Lois McMaster Bujold's reading of the first chapter of her new Miles Vorkosigan novel, scheduled for publication next summer. Frissons of joy rode up my spine as I listened to Hugo winner Connie Willis read about time travelers stuck in the London Blitz. With Austin-based Bradley Denton and Houston-based Sean Stewart I "kaffeklatsched," an informal gathering of fans and writers that provides an excellent opportunity to ask the author to explain exactly what he was thinking when he wrote each carefully constructed phrase of his latest opus. And I was thrilled to finally hear Zod Wallop author William Browning Spencer sardonically read pages from a work in progress.

Scratch beneath the surface of any book critic and you will find a true, dyed-in-the-wool fan. And I am no different. It was hard to maintain any kind of real journalistic distance in the presence of folks who created the universes that you have loved. How do you not leap out from behind your press badge and gush about how moved you were by Memory or Lunatics while restraining the impulse to ask for an autograph? For the record, I'm not immune to the rush of fandom.

But I will never be a true fan who does the circuit and lives for Worldcon. The panels, which covered topics from gender in science fiction to cloning, were largely exercises in the assembled fans attempting to one-up the pros. The Dealer's Room didn't seem to contain anything that couldn't be purchased in a decent used book store. And the over-zealous volunteers scattered about the Henry B. Gonzales Convention Center were heady with power and thrived on the blood of newbies.

Perhaps I simply failed to fully embrace my inner fan and, spotted as an imposter, was never able to feel part of the tight-knit science fiction convention clique. I shouldn't be surprised, however, that this group is so tight, almost as if they are linked arm-in-arm to protect all who need to put on the Data make-up but do not want to be made a freakshow by outsiders who just wouldn't understand. After years of feeling marginalized and scorned by the mainstream fiction world for reading "trash," conventioneers have every right to be touchy about their habits, which are rapidly gaining new converts everyday. However, these strong ties hamper others who may have an inner Princess Leia who is unable to escape without stronger encouragement.

In essence, however, I did do what I set out to. I can no longer call myself an SF Con virgin. I have been deflowered. But, as with any new and exciting situation about which you have only whispered and skewed knowledge, the whole experience is tinged with disappointment and the lingering feeling that I missed something crucial. -- Adrienne Martini

Texas Folklife Resources
at Doughtery Arts Center

Texas Folklife Resources finds voices once thought to belong to low culture or no culture at all and gives them a stage and treatment as serious artists. On August 23 that stage was a bare-bones one at the Dougherty Arts Center; the program was titled Dichos, Cuentos y Mas, the last installment of TFR's summer Language of Tradition series, and I think at least one of the participants that night would have balked at the term "serious artist." Alejandro Solis, vaquero, storyteller, and well-known horse trainer, who also participated in TFR's first Language of Tradition program, The Cowboy Way, is a big, burly man with no pretensions who at once seems at unease onstage but also eerily certain of what constitutes a good story.

The juxtaposition of his offering with those of academics like Norma Elia Cantu and Rolando Hinojosa-Smith was the evening's most welcome by-product, however. TFR is a rare cultural organization because while it gives Texas' neglected cultural documentarians their place onstage, it doesn't stage their appearances as a high culture event, a possibility that would have sapped the lifeblood out of these vibrant thinkers' words and stories. Thus, the audience that night found just as welcome a cowboy's words as a published author's, as well as a politician's and a famed conjunto accordionist's music.

Rep. Norma Chavez (D-El Paso) was reported to be the most nervous of all the participants but effortlessly charmed the audience with the story of how she -- businesswoman, chicana, grassroots organizer -- created a campaign out of almost no widespread name recognition and even less money to defeat her opponent and become the Secretary of the Texas House of Representatives Mexican-American Legislative Caucus. Neither Valerio Longoria nor his two sons who came along to play with him spoke many words at all during the program but hardly needed to as their playing spoke volumes enough.

TFR began this series with the recognition that it could be a one-summer series or perhaps, if well-received, an annual event. They have no doubt now, after packed houses at all three programs, that cowboys, academics, blues musicians, politicos, and who knows what other of Texas' hidden cultural artists, will be making their way to Austin next summer.

-- Claiborne K.H.Smith

Katherine Hester
at Book People

It was 10 years ago that Katherine L. Hester, after receiving a degree in journalism from the University of Georgia, left Athens for Austin. It was a homecoming, of sorts. She was born in Texas, and as she told me earlier in the week before her reading, "Austin is really where I came of age. My first wedding. My first funeral. My first traffic ticket...." And so, it is only fitting that she return here, where she lived up until a year ago when she moved to Germany with her husband. She was in town to read from Eggs for Young America, a collection of short stories set in towns not unlike Austin and Athens.

The crowd at BookPeople (September 3) filled its third floor, causing extra chairs to be unfolded. Many were faculty and current and former students from the University of Texas. It was in that university environment that Hester did her graduate work, receiving a James A. Michener Fellowship in creative writing and becoming a member of the Texas Center for Writers (which co-hosted the event). With Eggs for Young America, she proves that, yes, she has been listening and observing the responsibility of any good writer.

After moments of thanks and with eye contact evoking memories, she began to read. A few pages into the story ("Grand Portage"), the female character, Deliah, thinks about buying a postcard:"She had no idea what she would write down on a postcard if she were to buy one. I'm in Oklahoma. I broke up with Donny. I'm with a guy named Errol now; we're on the way to Canada. A sagging string was tacked along the wall beside the postcard rack. MY WIFE RAN OFF WITH MY BEST FRIEND; I SURE DO MISS HIM lamented one of the baseball caps clothespinned to the string." With only a few lines, Hester manages to tell so much, zig-zagging her way through stories, connecting seemingly unrelated events.

Hester states that her characters resemble "...many people, in this day and age, who are working without taking much satisfaction in their work. But, at the same time, they are finding their communities and the things that give them satisfaction." The reading by Hester did not add much to this story. But, then again, her stories stand alone. The one thing I question is that these are only snapshots of a more interesting story. As Hester is currently working on a new novel, that may change. -- Jeremy Reed

Robert Galván
at Book People

Twenty people, twenty chairs, and an extra row -- just in case. A subtle purple theme and musical interludes for the audience and stragglers curious enough to sit and listen. And that voice. A voice that doesn't quite match the rather small stature of Robert Galván. But one aptly suited for poetry, his poetry. A voice rich enough to carpet the walls and warm enough to provoke even the fondest of memories -- perhaps the new collection of poems from which he read, Meteors, should be titled Memories instead. Some of the poems have been published before, while others were unpublished. One thing is certain, however: Each of his poems is knee-deep in history. Between each reading, Galván extended an aside that allowed the listener to peek inside a little window opening up into his world. Each poem gave him a chance to reminisce about his childhood and a chance for him to share it. His poems are the fingerprints of his life and his family's life. His simple writing style manages to capture the smell of grass and heat in "The Gardener" and the sound of the changing seasons in "The Coming of Winter in Texas."

Only a part-time poet, Galván spends most of his time dedicated to music as a conductor. In order to encompass the entire essence of his poems, Galván played a handmade Japenese shakuhachi, a type of wooden flute, while his wife, donned in a purple dress, read aloud three poems possessing a somewhat oriental flavor. But that was not the only musical interlude. Four of Galván's colleagues were invited to partake in his day of glory at Book People on September 7. Two women, both in various shades of purple, played an oboe solo and a flute solo; two other artists shared a violin duet. Each piece glorified the beauty of Galván's writing. Although the listeners were far from inquisitive, it was obvious that everyone left the reading content, each listener a new owner of Meteors with Galván's signature emblazoned in each one. And why the purple decor? According to Galván, purple was important to Gustav Klimt as an essence of death. But for Galván? It's his favorite color. -- Monica L. Piñon

James Hynes
at Barnes & Noble

It all started on Halloween. Somewhere between the gnarled fingers of a full moon and rosy-fingered dawn, James Hynes decided his next book (following The Wild Colonial Boy) would be a horror story. So he boned up on his M.R. James, unearthed his Edgar Allan Poe, blew the cobwebs off a collection of gothic tales, and set to work excavating the undead.

Who knew all this damn academia would seep in? It was Hynes' last year at the University of Michigan, where he taught creative fiction on a post-doc fellowship, and where he was decidedly not tenure-tracked. He was restless and reckless, a middle-aged rebel with a cause to ridicule the inflated egos around him and a hankering for storytelling. What resulted was a pithy hybrid of horror and academic satire, Publish and Perish, a collection of three devilish novellas that have since topped the San Francisco Chronicle's list of top books and earned the distinction of The New York Times' recommended reading as well as made him a Barnes & Noble Discover writer. The book's opener, "Queen of the Jungle" -- and Hynes' personal favorite -- is a classic tale of man versus feline, in which a narcissistic professor's infidelity will not be tolerated by one finicky and incontinent cat."99" chronicles a brilliant, stuffy anthropologist embarking on field research that may be his last. "Casting the Runes," based on the M.R. James story of the same name, is the novel's closing tale, in which an aspiring professor must wrest an academic dinosaur for her name and later, her life. Jurassic Park in the ivory tower, so to speak.

But at his September 16 booksigning, Hynes was anything but the high-falutin' curmudgeon his novellas depict. Instead, this approachable, avuncular author read an excerpt from "Casting the Runes," the piece, as Hynes explained, "that has the most to do with Austin." The story takes place in "Lamar," a city that is "one of the grooviest addresses in the nation these days, a slacker theme park staffed by long-haired singer-songwriters, buzz-cut cowboy novelists, video clerks-turned-indie filmmakers, skinhead neopunks, and the latest 25-year-old billionaire software designer," where the protagonist teaches at "Longhorn University." Hynes added this spoonful of local flavor to his quirky concoction, only one more reason to sample this delightful collection of the ghostly and ghastly. -- Sarah Hepola

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