Science Fiction: Imagining - and Warning

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), March 5, 2012 | Go to article overview

Science Fiction: Imagining - and Warning


Byline: Bob Keefer The Register-Guard

Just don't call it "Sci-Fi," science- fiction writer Jerry Oltion told a workshop in Eugene on Sunday.

So naturally the two-hour free workshop he gave for a dozen and a half people at the Eugene Public Library was billed as "FAQs for Sci-Fi Writers." It turns out that among science-fiction writers, "Sci-Fi" is a somewhat derogatory term for "schlocky space opera," Oltion said. "It's a specific term for bad science fiction."

Oltion's presentation was given in connection with The Big Read, a monthlong program funded by the National Endowment for the Arts in which every one in the community is urged to read a single book and think and talk about it. This year's book is Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451" - widely considered a science fiction classic.

The very top of Oltion's list of questions people frequently ask him, the number one science fiction question of his career, is this: What is science fiction?

That can be hard to define, the writer said.

"Look around you," he said. "It's everywhere. Science fiction used to be a subgenre often in its own little ghetto, near the porn. Anything disreputable, you would find science- fiction near it."

His favorite definition is fairly expansive. "It's fiction with an element of speculation," he said.

And that brings up an irony.

"By most definitions of science fiction, 'Fahrenheit 451' is not science fiction," he said.

But the speculative definition works for Bradbury's famous 1953 novel, which imagines a future with no books. "What science fiction exists for is to warn you about the future," he said. "It exists to prevent that future."

Oltion, who is fond of wearing tie-dyed shirts at public appearances, is the author of 15 novels and more than 150 short stories. He is the most published author in the history of Analog magazine.

He won the Nebula Award in 1998 for his novella "Abandon in Place," and for years he ran the Wordos science fiction workshop in Eugene. He also invented an astronomical telescope, called the trackball telescope, that uses a rotating sphere at its base to provide smooth tracking of stars and planets for observation.

"A lot of people think science fiction is hard to write," Oltion told the gathering on Sunday. "It's not. You can make up anything! You don't have to stick to reality. You can write anything you want and write any way you want."

There may not exactly be rules in science fiction, but there are some good policies.

"Limit yourself to one impossible thing per story," he suggested, talking about such impossibilities as traveling greater than the speed of light. "How many porcupines do you have to swallow? …

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