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Science fiction don’t get no respect

Friday night, I attended a significant event in the Pacific Northwest science fiction literary world. I was present at the opening ceremonies for the 25th Orycon, Oregon’s science fiction convention, for the announcement of the fifth annual Endeavour Award winner(s) for best science fiction or fantasy book published in 2002 by an author living in the Pacific Northwest. What made this particular Endeavour stand out was that this year one co-winner was Steven Barnes, one of the few African-American male writers in the genre, for Lion’s Blood, an alternate history based on a world where Muslim Africa, not Christian Europe, became a major colonial power and colonized North America with the use of European slaves.

In another genre, especially the literary genre, Steve’s award would be big news because of the theme and his ethnicity. My guess is that we’ll be lucky to see anything more than the press release from the Endeavours published in the local daily.

Maybe I’m just being cynical. Or maybe I’ve seen far too many clueless, sneering “Ooh, look at the weirdos at the local science fiction convention who dress up funny” stories in various newspapers. Considering the number of people who read science fiction, the quality of many science fiction writers and the depth to which edgy themes are explored in science fiction, you’d think the genre would get more respect over the years. There are some fine writers in science fiction who could appeal to more than just those folks who read science fiction, if given the promotional support from their publishers. Unfortunately, what happens is that many science fiction themes get worked over pretty hard in the S.F. world until they’re clich퀌�s, at which point some mainstream writer picks it up and rides it to success. Genre writers seeking to break beyond the science fiction ghetto end up writing media tie-ins or Tolkien imitations instead of the cutting-edge stuff many of them want to write.

Why is this? You’d think otherwise, given the strengths of the genre and its supporters.

One of these strengths is the organization of its fandom and its writers. Science fiction fandom, as an organized group, has many talented people who gather together to put on conventions such as Orycon that attract attendees numbering anywhere from a few hundred to 5,000 or more over the course of a weekend. These conventions feature four or more panel tracks focusing on diverse subjects such as hard science, history, politics, writing as a process and as a business, costuming, science fiction folk singing (filking), science fiction art as a business and as a process, and assorted other fun stuff (chocolate!). Many hard-core fans work together to create large international or regional conventions on the other side of the country from where they live. The quality of convention organization is usually high, done with a skill that could (and probably does) boggle professional convention organizers. If you want to learn how to organize and run any sort of convention well, you could do a lot worse than volunteer at your local science fiction convention.

The professional organization of science fiction writers, SFFWA (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) is well respected by other writers’ professional organizations for the degree to which its leaders and members have analyzed literary rights contracts to get the best deals for its members.

So why doesn’t science fiction get any respect? Danged if I know.

What I do know is that I prize Orycon, where I can meet with friends, talk with other writers, argue endlessly about history and politics, and shake my head over the costumes some people manage to come up with. I usually find one or two new books in the Dealer’s Room not available elsewhere, and have to keep a close hold on my credit card to avoid the temptation of the various Art Show offerings.

Congratulations to Steven Barnes and Kristine Kathryn Rusch, both damn fine writers, for their Endeavour winnings, and to Endeavour for its fifth year and Orycon for its 25th. May you all gain the respect you deserve one of these days.