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May, 2009 : Feature:

Signals 20

First, a thank-you. The editors here tell me that Signals 18 brought in more donations than this site has ever seen. Some of those donations are due to the column and some due to the lively discussion that followed. (For those of you who planned to donate and still haven't done so, check out the button on the left side of your screen.)

I also know (because you wrote me private e-mails) that a bunch of you subscribed to your favorite magazines because of that column. I have a hunch you bought books as well and gave to your local charities and volunteered some time.

So…thank you. I appreciate all that you've done.

Now, on to our regularly scheduled column.

I just finished reading two autobiographies, written by two of the pioneers of science fiction, Frederik Pohl and Jack Williamson. I hadn't read either book before, and I found them both incredibly inspiring.

Here's why:

Fred wrote The Way The Future Was in the 1970s. He's planning an updated version, covering the last thirty years, for later this year. I read this book in pieces throughout December and January, as the economy was, to quote Senator John McCain, "cratering." President Bush was calling this the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The stock market was losing value daily, people were getting laid off in record numbers…and I'm reading about science fiction in the Great Depression.

Frederik Pohl was born one year after my mother. He was a teenager in the Depression, just as she was. By the middle of the Depression, both her parents were dead and she went to live with relatives, a common experience during that time.

Fred went through the same thing, only he was in New York. Yet his experiences and attitudes toward life and toward entertainment were remarkably similar to hers. He loved the movies, and went whenever he could afford it. He championed causes, joined groups, and grew up fast. He married young, became an editor young, and helped found what became science fiction fandom. Most importantly to me, he started selling his writing in those days as well.

Why is this important to me? Because I sold my first piece of writing in high school. I sold my first short story in my early twenties. I retired as the editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction at the age of 37. The trajectory of most writers (and some editors) careers runs only ten years. I've been at this silly business for more than thirty.

There aren't many role models for long-time careers in writing. It's an up-and-down business, haunted by strange beliefs. Like: No one wants my work. And when that gets disproven, it morphs into something else, like: Every publication that wants my work will die.

The second corollary is probably true. The first two magazines to publish my short stories, Amazing and Aboriginal SF, are both gone now. The editor who tried to buy my first novel died last year. The editor who did buy my first novel is now a high-powered agent. So is the assistant editor who took that editor's place.

Writing is all about change, just like science fiction is all about change.

And that's a hard thing to remember.

Which brings me back to the autobiographies. Fred's covers his first forty years in science fiction. He's lived another thirty since. His most recent novel, a collaboration with Arthur C. Clarke, came out last summer, and Fred—who is nearly 90—went to Worldcon to promote the book. (Fortunately, I saw him there in the green room and we had a chance to talk. I'm not taking those moments for granted with any of my friends any longer.)

In other words, he's still conducting his career. But he's moving with the times. He has an attractive blog, His ability to grow and change—to participate in the future—is as important to his seventy-year long career as his writing talent is.

But the autobiography makes several things clear. First, a freelancer finds work, however he needs to. Second, a freelancer must overcome mistakes. And third, a freelancer has to love his field.

Think about it. Frederik Pohl has participated in science fiction as a writer, an agent, an editor, and a fan for seventy years. Yes, he dabbled in other genres, wrote non-fiction, made television appearances, gave lectures and speeches, taught (including me at the workshop where I met my husband, Dean Wesley Smith). But Fred has maintained his first love throughout his career, and his writing is just as fresh today as it was fifty years ago. Of course, his technique is better, but technique matters not one whit when it comes to storytelling and, more importantly, enthusiasm.

Fred shared his enthusiasm for science fiction and for the future with his good friend Jack Williamson. The last time I saw Jack, at the Williamson Lectureship that he sponsored at Eastern New Mexico University in Portales, he had an abiding interest in the future, even though he was in his mid-nineties.

Jack had invited science fiction writers, futurists, and scientists to sit on a panel before an audience of wannabe writers, college students, scientists, established writers, and science fiction fans. The best questions—the most informed questions—came from Jack himself. Jack, like Fred, loved science, loved the future, and loved to imagine where the human race will go—whether he came along or not.

Jack is gone now and I miss him more than ever (partly because reading his autobiography was like having a long conversation with him). His autobiography, Wonder's Child: My Life In Science Fiction, was published in the mid-1980s, two years before I met Jack.

Jack lived another twenty years after he wrote his autobiography but, unlike Fred, Jack never had the chance to update his work. (Too bad, too. He did a lot in those twenty years.) His autobiography also covers the Great Depression and, interestingly, Jack kept a series of index cards with information from every story written. He had dates of sale and publication. He also recorded the payments.

As I mentioned in my last column, Jack received more money per year in the Great Depression than did my grandfather, who worked for the U.S. Postal Service. This detail stuck with me because I read Jack's autobiography right after I read Fred's, while the news departments were screaming catastrophe and the fledgling Obama administration was trying to stem the economic bleeding.

Hope in the midst of crisis. Jack's autobiography, like Fred's, details struggles with magazine editors long dead, and publications whose names I'd never heard of. Jack, one of the shyest men I'd ever met, didn't have much to do with fandom, but he did attend Worldcons, accepted offers to travel to conventions all over the world, and used the science fiction community to build friendships.

He kept doing all of those things to the very end.

The autobiographies also detail the ups and downs of a freelance life. The years when the money rolls in and the years when no one pays. The years when your work is the hottest thing ever and the years when no one remembers your name. Jack, like Fred, started young. Jack published for nine decades. But he also read SF that long and he remained interested.

Just like Fred.

I still love reading SF, especially in the short form. I read as much of the magazines as I can every month, as well as the wonderful anthologies and the collections. I try to squeeze in an SF novel or two as well.

The ups and downs are tough. Jack's autobiography added a nice bit of perspective. Jack started each chapter with a paragraph about science and world events in the year that the chapter covered. He started writing science fiction before vaccinations were common, before the double helix was discovered, and before man split the atom (in fact, that event almost made Jack give up writing SF).

The world itself went up and down—through the exciting 1920s into the terrifying Depression onto the horrors of the Second World War in the space of a few decades. Jack made money in the booms of the 1950s; Fred went deeply into debt. Both re-evaluated their careers in the 1960s, as science fiction itself went through a major upheaval that destroyed dozens of careers.

We're in an economic upheaval now, but we're in a boom in science fiction short story publications. We have more opportunities now to share our love of SF than we have ever had. My Facebook friends list includes people from Spain and Colombia, from France and the United Kingdom. I've met a few of these people, but have only corresponded with others. Many of them I "met" through websites and e-mail, often when they wrote an appreciation of my work (or I wrote an appreciation of theirs).

When those of us who are in midlife now eventually write our autobiographies, we will have gone through as many personal up and downs, as many worldwide changes, as Fred and Jack did. I only hope we can all survive as well—and with as much hope and love for the future. After all, hope and love for the future is what science fiction is all about.

Copyright © 2009, Kristine Kathryn Rusch. All Rights Reserved.

About Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Kristine Kathryn Rusch is a Hugo award-winning writer who was, once upon a time, a Hugo award-winning editor. She has published fiction in almost every genre under a variety of names. Her most recent science fiction novel is Diving into the Wreck which Pyr
published in November. Her novella, "Recovering Apollo 8," won last year's Asimov's Readers Choice Award and was nominated for a Hugo. The novella has just been reprinted in Russian. For more information, go to her website at


May 7, 05:34 by IROSF
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