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Denvention Day Two: Sci Fi in the Basement

"What? No talking cats?"
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The annual Denvention has landed in Denver, and Jason Sheehan is there. Click here to read his first report from the science fiction convention.

Many years ago -- long before I had this gig, long before I even really had a career to call my own -- I gave some thought to becoming a science fiction writer.

I loved science fiction: reading it, writing it, watching it on the big screen, in that order. Star Wars was not the first movie I can remember seeing as a kid, but it was close. Roger Zelazny’s Amber novels (first five only, the second five sucked the way the second batch of Star Wars movies did, the two Matrix sequels did) were the first books I ever took seriously: a two-volume, hardbound set given to me by my father when I was ten or so, kept in their original Boris Vallejo covers, and one of the only artifacts of my youth that I still have today -- never worth enough to pawn, too dear to me to destroy or lose even when I was at my most fucked up. As for the writing, that’s something I would do when I was pissed off -- my first attempts at short stories based off the gorgeous box art on those old Atari 2600 games that I would never have (my family not poor, exactly, but not well off enough that spending actual folding money on a bunch of pixels and a magic box made a lot of sense) or used to stretch my imagination when my Han Solo, Luke Skywalker and single stormtrooper action figures weren’t enough to enact the massive space opera dramas in my head.

Seriously, what the fuck is a kid supposed to do with one stormtrooper?

As I got older, my writing waxed and waned. There were years I did it a lot and years when I did other things. Mostly drugs. I used writing as a tool for cutting down on my drinking when I was in my twenties -- going to the diner instead of the bar when I got off work, always bringing a notebook with me just so I wouldn’t look so lonely and forlorn sitting there all by myself at four in the morning when the bread deliveries started coming in -- and books as company during the weird years when I found myself without friends.

I can remember one fairly lucid and dedicated stretch where I actually got it together enough to finish a few stories and send them off to magazines. This was while I was living in Buffalo, and of course I wasn’t able to sell any of my stories (they were all awful, without exception -- those that weren’t thinly disguised rip-offs of writers I loved were either gallingly didactic or unreadably Joyce-ian, and all of them, for reasons I can’t even explain today, either involved hyper-intelligent toasters or talking cats), but I considered having simply finished a couple to be an achievement in itself. Getting paid? That would just be gravy.

Of course, gravy is good. I like gravy. Everyone likes gravy. And after a couple of rejections, it occurred to me that maybe it would help if I learned a little something about my intended audience before making another go at writing for them. I mean, I knew what I liked (toasters and talking cats, apparently), but what everyone else liked -- that was what was important here.

Which was how I ended up one night sitting in a stranger’s kitchen, surrounded by people gathered to celebrate the airing of the fifth or tenth of fiftieth iteration of the Dr. Who series on American television, smoking cigarettes and drinking beers with an actual working science fiction writer from Buffalo. A lot of the people who’d congregated at the house were in costumes and those who weren’t in costumes were in wheelchairs. Like a high school drama club, they were scarily prone to suddenly breaking out into song and seemed to speak an entirely different language than I did -- one filled with esoteric references to things other than pop culture and porn. They knew things about swords and spaceships and computers and faster-than-light travel. They were, in a word, creepy, but this writer (whose name I’ve long since forgotten, sadly, as I’d like to thank him someday for the advice he gave me), sitting there like some kind of skinny, beer-drunk Buddah, told me to look around. To really look.

"You want to write science fiction?" he asked me. "Then remember this crowd, because these are your people. This is who you’re writing for."

Science fiction writing is all about fantasy fulfillment, he explained. Just like writing romance novels or ad copy for high-end European sportscars. It’s about removing people, for a few hours, from whatever they hate about their lives; to give them an escape from a world that, for the most part, has been neither kind nor gentle to them. Big tits, ray guns, flaming spaceships, sudden violence, gooey aliens. "No one has ever gone broke giving the people what they want," he said.

Flash forward a dozen years or so. Here I am again, surrounded by grown men dressed as pirates, sitting in small, nondescript rooms to discuss how Star Trek changed the twentieth century and the speculative scientific possibilities of faster-than-light space drives. There are entire panels dedicated to how one can make his or her living as a writer in a day and age when it seems as though nobody willingly reads anything longer than a text message and how to define the cognitive dissonance of "slipstream" fiction. It’s fascinating shit, seriously. Even today, I love this stuff because, though I eventually found a way to make my living as a writer (mostly by using my Buffalo Buddah’s advice of giving people what they want, even if what I write today is sadly deficient in the areas of ray guns and spaceships, if not big tits and fisticuffs), I remain a huge sci-fi fan and enjoy talking to writers a little braver, a little more dedicated than me, who found a way to live the dream and make it in the science fiction genre.

One of those guys? Ed Bryant, a Denver-based science fiction and horror writer who’s been in the game since the ‘70s and is still going strong. He’s a heavy-hitter with a long career and some serious awards under his belt (two Nebulas, just to open), who knew and collaborated with Harlan Ellison (favorite son of Wynkoop Street) and is, frankly, way nicer and more polite to suck-uppy fan-boys like me than he needs to be.

One of the cool things about the convention experience is getting the opportunity to sit down across a table from some of the best in the business and just talk. (Easier, I gotta say, than busting into some stranger’s kitchen and demanding wisdom from the first writer one sees. Less likely to get one’s ass tossed out by a bunch of angry, asthmatic Dr. Who fans, too.)

Which is how I got the chance to talk (and listen) at length to Bryant in the basement of the Colorado Convention Center during one of the scheduled "kaffeklatches" in the Korbel ballroom. He talked about a lot of things -- the coming DNC brouhaha, the use of maggots in treating staph infections, why he doesn’t roller skate anymore. But eventually the chat turned to the business and practice of writing, and he offered a fascinating window into his decades-long career and his particular contributions to the sci-fi/horror/New Wave movement. He talked about his favorite editors and his least favorite editors, tracked how one short story (called "While She Was Out"), written years ago, has continued to make him a surprising amount of money year after year (and is currently being made into a movie starring Kim Bassinger, due out -- according to IMDB -- in December of this year), and what it was like to work with Ellison on the novel Phoenix Without Ashes.

I learned more about the fiction writer’s trade in the two hours I spent in the basement with Bryant than I could’ve at any writer’s workshop or night school course and, as happened on that night in Buffalo, I came away inspired -- feeling that maybe doing something I love is not quite so impossible as it has sometimes seemed. That if I could just get past the toasters, the talking cats and all the rookie nonsense, I might have something to say, too. And walking the broad hallways of the Colorado Convention Center, I saw the same bright gleam of revelation in a lot of eyes. The people walking out of the lecture on space drives looked as though they might have gotten an idea or two about building spaceships in their backyards when they get home. The fans who’d sat and listened to editors like Ellen Datlow and Toni Weisskopf talk about breaking into the big leagues as science fiction writers looked as though they couldn’t wait to get back to their laptops. And those who’d spent the past two hours filking or talking about space pirates? Well, no. here’s still no hope for them. But damned if they didn’t look happy with themselves.

One final note: I’ve done two days at Denvention now. Partial days, anyhow. And I heard this afternoon that the count of attendees is somewhere in the 3,000 range. That number is expected to double on Friday and Saturday, with weekenders absolutely cramming the place for the last two days of the convention, including Friday night’s masked ball (which will be covered here, with pictures) and Saturday’s Hugo awards ceremonies (which I’ll be reporting from). I’ll be haunting the rooms and lectures again tomorrow, hoping for more stories and strangeness. But if things get dull? Well, then maybe I’ll just take a trip up to north Denver and drop in on Bryant’s kitchen. It’s a trick that worked for me once, years ago. And Bryant doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who’d be all that freaked out by finding an errant Irishman knocking on his door at strange hours, seeking wisdom and carrying a cold six-pack.

Of course, I could be wrong. -- Jason Sheehan

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