- Foreword: Writing Rochester's Futures
- "Interesting Times"
- "Culinary Capital, 2034"
- "Night Bells"
- "Hollow Lives"
- "The Naked Girl"
- "Time Enough for Love"
- "Day of the Bicentennial"
- "One City at a Time"
- "Want Not"
- "The Costs of Survival"
- "Getting Wet"
- "Top 10 Headlines, Rochester, NY, 2034"
- "North Star Pipeline"
- "The 2034 Lilac Festival"
- "Scotch and Sizzlenuts on the Resolute Bay"
- "Fads (or Why Jerry Loathes the Aliens)" [FULL TEXT, AVAILABLE ONLINE ONLY]
Foreword: Writing Rochester's Futures
The spring 2003 semester at the University of Rochester had just started when my English professor said something that, without being too dramatic about it, changed the direction of my life.
“I meet every once in a while with a group of local science fiction writers . . ."
I’m sure she said more after that but I think my brain locked up after it heard “a group of local science fiction writers.”
I had been writing fiction for many years and, like most writers, had been in and out of several different writing groups. Writing groups are a different breed of beast from most social organizations such as book clubs or auto enthusiast meetings where the purpose is to enjoy the company of like-minded folk. When you go to a writer’s meeting, you go with your ego hanging out like a piñata. You’re laying bare your creation, which is almost always an intimate reflection of yourself in some way, and you’re hoping your colleagues will sing its praises. But, as is wont to happen with a piñata, your ego has to go through a bit of bruising before you can come away with the goodies.
Too often that delicate balance between bruising and bonbons is upset, and that’s when a writing group fails. You may be receiving nothing but criticism or nothing but encouragement, neither of which helps you become a better writer. Or you might be writing in a genre that nobody else in the group knows what to do with.
The latter had been my problem. For ten years I’d been writing “literary” fiction that was, admittedly, weird. While it wasn’t blatant science fiction, it was something that clearly sat poorly with the literary writers groups I drifted through. I called it a hybrid of Henry Miller and Ray Bradbury—a description that didn’t clarify anything for anyone.
I hadn’t known it then, but I had been living in the land of the great gray area known as Speculative Fiction.
Somewhere between the stark realism of George Elliot and the fantastical stories of Jules Verne is a type of fiction that uses unrealistic elements to explore very real issues of the human condition. Think of the ghosts of Hamlet, or the Big Brother of 1984—clearly these are not meant to be taken literally, yet they are key to the underlying point of the stories in that they allow us to look at an issue from a safe perspective. Last year, all of Rochester was invited to read Bradbury’s classic Fahrenheit 451, a story of a future where all books are banned. “Firemen” were charged with the task of burning books, rather than fighting fires, and society became militant and trite. One fireman secretly keeps some of the books he is sent to burn, and in reading them he begins to understand what is lost when free will and deep contemplation is excised from a society. Written in 1953 about the not-too-far future, the novel is a classic of literature, and yet it digs deeply into the repercussions of an issue that is fresh on the minds of the American voter as we hear rumors that a vice-presidential candidate may have sought to ban books from her local library. Likewise, the recently resurrected television series Battlestar Galactica devoted half a season to the plight of humans living in internment camps under the occupation of an invading alien species. When the humans turn to suicide bombings in a desperate attempt to survive, it’s hard not to cheer for their victories even though the reflection of Iraq and the moral ambiguities therein are painfully uncomfortable. The unreal setting can give us a little distance from the things we normally hold very close, and lets us look at them with an objectivity we couldn’t otherwise tolerate.
I would like to say that I had been exploring speculative writing in an attempt to achieve similar noble goals, but the truth is that I didn’t know any other way to do what I wanted to do. Without a good, honest, able, and professional writing group to help me grow as a writer, I was merely writing randomly and relying on trial and error to learn what worked. One lesson I’d clearly learned from my stints with various writing groups was that only writers with a familiarity with fantasy or science fiction seemed to understand what I was trying to do with this “weird fiction.” But finding these writers in Rochester, it seemed, was an impossibility.
So, when my University of Rochester professor, Sarah Higley, who had penned a few memorable Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes, mentioned that she knew of not just a few, but an entire herd of serious science fiction writers in the area, I made a beeline for her after the class.
“Yes, there’s a loose group of professional science fiction writers that meets every now and then,” she said, but I could tell from her tone that she was hesitant to be any more welcoming. If I was going to be allowed anywhere near this group, I was going to have to prove my worth. Groucho Marx said he didn’t want to be a part of any group that would have him as a member, and likewise, I realized I had to be a better writer than I was if I was going to get invited to this group.
Sarah’s class was a science fiction writing class, so for my final project in the class, I set about writing the first pure science fiction story I’d written since my teens. I loved working with the class, critiquing and discussing stories from authors at all skill levels, teaching some and learning from all of them, but at the end of the semester, there was one question I wanted answered. Was I good enough? Would Sarah introduce me to the mythic collection of professional Rochester science fiction writers?
As it turned out, the group had essentially disbanded halfway through the semester. But Sarah invited me to a party in Perinton over the summer where several of these writers would allegedly surface. On a sunny Saturday afternoon I drove to an unknown house, knocked on an unknown door, and walked into a party where I knew no one. I couldn’t have been more nervous if I were going to a job interview unannounced.
Fortunately, it turned out that these writers were mostly like normal people; the same number of limbs and eyes and not a jaunty black beret among them. I met many of the authors that appear in the following pages—Alicia Doty Henn, Steve Carper, Dana Paxon—and several others who I couldn’t know at the time would end up great friends of mine. As I tried in barely hidden desperation to demonstrate that I was not a social misfit who regularly shows up at random parties, I was asked the same question by several people: “Are you taking Nancy’s class at Writers & Books in the fall?”
“Of course,” I said. I knew of Rochester’s Writers & Books, certainly, but I didn’t know what class or what Nancy anyone was talking about. “Of course” seemed like the right answer, so I said it and then raced home to look it up on the web. Nancy Kress, one of the most well respected writers in the science fiction world, was teaching a speculative fiction course at Writers & Books. I signed up.
For those of you who are writers in the Rochester area, you may already know what a gold mine our city has in Writers & Books, for any kind of literature. In Nancy Kress’ class I found a dozen other authors who truly understood speculative literature, and more importantly, authors who were passionate about their writing. Under Nancy’s excellent guidance, we worked hard to learn and help each other. By the end of the class, a number of us formed our own writing critique group along with many of the members of the old professional group that had dissolved the year before.
The group, known as “D309” after the room number in the Village Gate Square where the old professional group used to meet, grew over the next two years, eventually adding subsections to cater specifically to short story 2034 writers and novel writers. What started as a few writers looking for someone else who understood “the weird stuff,” became a community of nearly three dozen.
With the realization that there were so many dedicated writers of speculative fiction in the Rochester area, the group spun off a public face—RSPEC: The Rochester Speculative Literature Association (you’d think a bunch of writers could come up with a name that accurately reflected the acronym, but you’d be wrong). R-SPEC served a mission to help foster new writers, help develop current writers, and help promote all Rochester’s writers of speculative literature.
What you’re now holding is the latest fruit of the thriving community that is Rochester’s R-SPEC. It’s a look forward to the bicentennial year of our fair city. It’s a guess at what living in Rochester in the year 2034 might entail, told from the perspective of local scientists, professors, business owners, doctors, playwrights and artists, who all live here in the city and write in the future.
Founder of R-SPEC: The Rochester Speculative Literature Association