12:00 AM CDT on Thursday, April 24, 2008
By EDWARD NAWOTKA / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News
People always judge science- fiction writing by its worst examples," says author Joe R. Lansdale. "Sci-fi is more respected than when I was a kid – when it was considered that old hokey stuff. People are beginning to appreciate what a unique genre it is and what an interesting pocket universe we have here in Texas."
That universe will get some international attention this weekend as the 2008 Nebula Awards are presented in Austin. Mr. Lansdale, a prolific author of mystery, horror, comics and sci-fi works, often set around his hometown of Nacogdoches, will serve as toastmaster.
The Nebulas are one of science fiction's top honors, dating to 1965, when Frank Herbert won the inaugural best novel prize for Dune. Winners are chosen by members of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. Sci-fi's other top awards, the Hugos, are voted on by fans. "The Nebulas are essentially like the Oscars, while the Hugos are like the People's Choice Awards," said Jayme Lynn Blaschke, a communications officer at Texas State University who also serves as the Nebulas' publicist.
Texas is home to 71 members of the writers group. "That makes it third only to California and New York," says Betsy Mitchell, the editor-in-chief of sci-fi publisher Del Rey books.
Ms. Mitchell will be on hand to honor the 68-year old British-born (and part-time Austinite) Michael Moorcock as a grand master. Another Texan, 78-year-old Ardath Mayhar of Chireno, author of some 60 books of fiction and poetry, will be deemed author emeritus.
Other luminaries expected to attend the Saturday night awards ceremony are Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon, whose The Yiddish Policeman's Union is nominated for best novel, and Bruce Sterling (a part-time Austinite), whose story "Kiosk" is shortlisted in the novelette category, as is "Memorare" by another one-time Texan, Gene Wolfe.
A preponderance of the state's science-fiction writers live in or around the capital, and for good reason: Austin is both home to the state's longest-running sci-fi fan convention, ArmadilloCon, founded in 1979, and longest-running sci-fi writers group, the Turkey City Writers' Workshop, started by University of Texas anthropology professor Chad Oliver in the 1970s.
Looming over the history of Texas science-fiction and fantasy writing is the figure of Robert E. Howard, who was born in Peaster in 1906 and created the character Conan the Barbarian. Today, a roll call of the state's sci-fi and fantasy writers runs the gamut from established elders, such as the prolific Neal Barrett Jr., author of some 50 works, to incognito best-sellers, such as Round Rock resident Aaron Allston, who has penned a series of popular Star Wars novels.
The state is also home to a number of emerging voices, such as Chris Roberson, novelist and publisher of MonkeyBrain Books – a press dedicated to science-fiction, fantasy and genre nonfiction studies.
Surprisingly, as easily as one can lay claim to being a Texas writer, the science-fiction writers – perhaps because their books often take place in purely imagined settings – are reluctant to characterize themselves as such.
"If there is any unifying characteristic," says author Elizabeth Moon, author of the acclaimed "Vatta's War" series of space operas, "I'd say that Texas writers are independent, willing to risk someone's disapproval to write what they want." The diversity here "encourages flexibility of mind and attitudes" and offers writers space "to allow for contemplation," she says.
Maybe those endless miles of Texas horizon and sky are just the thing to inspire a writer to imagine life in the vast emptiness of outer space.
Or, says Mr. Landsdale, it's something even simpler: "Isolation," he says, in all its cultural, social and geographic relevance. "It makes you entertain yourself. It makes you creative."