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Features May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2
   

Project Triton: New Sci-Fi Colony

By Anders Wright

 
     

After almost 35 years at Michigan State, the Clarion Writers’ Workshop, the nation’s foremost science fiction and fantasy short-story writing clinic, relocated to UC San Diego, immersing promising writers in an intensive six-week seminar that teamed them with leading professionals and instructors in the field.

Founded in 1968 by sci-fi writer Robin Scott Wilson, along with Damon Knight and Kate Willhelm, Clarion ’s alumni list reads like a sci-fi Who’s Who. “The list of important Clarion graduates is really impressive,” says Cory Doctorow, a Clarion alumnus himself, and also a 2007 instructor.

Doctorow is a co-editor of the immensely popular Web site boingboing.net, and has written several award-winning sci-fi novels, including Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. He says that his own Clarion experience was both life- and career-changing. “On the first day, James Patrick Kelly looked at my work and said, ‘Cory, this is totally lacking in any kind of emotional center. It’s just verbal pyrotechnics. You need to figure out how to find the beating heart of a story.’ I spent sort of the next five years trying to figure out what that meant. It was quite an amazing transformation in my life.”

Over the years, Clarion has brought in an impressive list of instructors ranging from Harlan Ellison to Orson Scott Card. Each week of the workshop, the students are taught by different mentors, so they receive feedback that can be entirely different from one week to the next. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, they are always being critiqued by their peers, so they are constantly rethinking and rewriting their stories. The process can be tough. “It’s intense for the teacher who comes in for one week—it’s unimaginable to me what the students go through in the six-week period, ” says Karen Joy Fowler, author of The Jane Austen Book Club and another instructor in UC San Diego’s inaugural 2007 season. “But the proof is in the results.””

Kim Stanley Robinson, Muir ’72, Ph.D. ’82, attended Clarion in 1975, between stints at UC San Diego, and is one of the workshop’s most prestigious graduates. Robinson is a multiple Hugo and Nebula Award winner—the Academy Awards of sci-fi writing—whose work examines sociological and ecological issues faced by the fictional societies he writes about. Best known for the three volumes of his Mars trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars), Robinson was instrumental in bringing Clarion to UC San Diego.

As funding and support for the workshop went dry in East Lansing, it became clear that Clarion would not be returning to Michigan State for another summer. Robinson approached UC San Diego Literature chair Don Wayne about the possibility of bringing it to San Diego. Wayne quickly came onboard and the two made their case to then-dean of Arts and Humanities, Michael Bernstein, who says he saw plenty of good reasons to make it happen.

“ We have several creative writers on the faculty and we ’re developing a visible program both at the undergraduate and graduate level,” says Bernstein, who currently serves as Tulane’s provost and vice president for Student Affairs. “We offer an M.F.A. in creative writing, and the synergy seemed obvious. Here was a chance for literature and Clarion to link up with the science, engineering, medicine and oceanography at UC San Diego. What better place to bring aspiring science fiction and fantasy writers than a campus like this?”

Robinson felt the campus was perfect for Clarion because its literature department is open-minded about the literary qualities of science fiction. “More and more academic departments are interested in creative writing, but programs tend to be stuck in a New Yorker mold, where the story is the epitome of realist America,” he says.

“ I think those programs are a little more retro and behind the curve. We live in a science fiction novel now that we all make together, so to dismiss science fiction is to dismiss the present. ”

Literature chair Don Wayne agreed. “I think there’s a shift underway,” he says. “More literary scholars are beginning to pay serious attention to science fiction, not only as a genre, but also as a mode of modeling alternatives to an existing reality.” Wayne sees more graduate students interested in studying sci-fi and fantasy writing than in the past, and showing increasing concern with issues of ecology and environmental sustainability. “For ’s more of a flow of information between the fields. I’m hoping there will be a mutual recognition of interest that could develop into research projects.”

Behind the scenes, UC San Diego development officer Jim Shea became an advocate for Clarion, securing the last-minute funding necessary to make the transition to the campus possible. Shea turned to Steven Hart, M.A. (Mathematics) ’80, founder of ViaSat, and his wife Sue, Ph.D. ’86. “They’re big supporters of the University,” says Shea. “Basically, we went to them and said we really need a budget cushion to make it through the next couple of years because Clarion wants to come here, and there’s no time to raise money.” The Harts are both science- fiction fans, and Shea says that they recognized the Clarion brand. Their gift made it possible for Clarion to put down roots in San Diego, and gave Shea some breathing room to seek out an endowed financial base that will keep the workshop here in the long term.

Once on campus, Clarion director Donald Wesling took the students to meet with Professor Sheldon Brown at Calit2 and see his Scalable Cities exhibit. Additionally, several Clarion students met with Professor Mark Thiemens, dean of the Division of Physical Sciences, and got a tour of his lab.
“That got rave reviews, ” says Wesling. “The students had enough science to know that was important.” On the strength of those two experiences, 2008 will offer Clarion students a weekly opportunity to meet with UC San Diego scientists and anthropologists.

Of course, the other element of Clarion is the students, who come from all walks of life. The 2007 class saw a stay-at-home mother, a tech journalist, and a 16-year-old UC San Diego graduate. All of them got to meet Robinson, attend San Diego’s annual Comic-Con, and hit a midnight book release party for the final Harry Potter book.

All of them came to Clarion for similar but different reasons. Before attending the workshop in 2007, Jerome Stueart already had plenty of writing experience, including several published books, as well as a Ph.D. and a teaching position in Texas. But he still wanted to experience the workshop. “I had a lot of critiquing in my Ph.D., but most of the people sitting around me didn’t read the type of stuff that I was writing,” he says. “That’s the advantage of Clarion, you’ve got 18 people who read this stuff every day, people who love it, who know what works.”

The end result, says director Wesling, has been nothing but successful. “They worked together in a familial working group. They had fun together. And they produced an enormous quantity of really good work.”

Clarion returns to UC San Diego this summer, running from June 29 to August 9. Instructors include Geoff Ryman, Mary Anne Mohanraj, and Neil Gaiman, one of the most public figures in the genre today. Detailed information about the workshop can be found at clarion.ucsd.edu.

UCSD SCI-FI AND FANTASY WRITERS
Gregory Benford, Ph.D. ’67: Timescape, Foundation’s Fear, The Key: What You Should Know About Science.

David Brin, Ph.D. ’81: The Uplift Wars, Startide Rising, Foundation’s Triumph, Heart of the Comet (in collaboration
with Gregory Benford), Sky Horizon.

Suzette Haden Elgin, Ph.D. ’71: The Ozark Trilogy, The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense, Native Tongue, Twenty-One Novel Poems.

Raymond Feist, Muir ’77: Magician, Silverthorn, Darkness at Sethanon, Faerie Tale, Into a Dark Realm.

Nancy Holder, Muir ’76: Lady Madonna,
I Hear the Mermaids Singing, Café Endless: Spring Rain, Dead in the Water and The Rose Bride: A Retelling of
“ The White Bride and the Black Bride ”

Kim Stanley Robinson, Muir ’74, Ph.D. ’82: Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars, Three Californias (Trilogy), Forty Signs of Rain (partly set on the UCSD campus), Fifty Degrees Below, Sixty Days and Counting.

Vernor Vinge, Ph.D. ’71, True Names, A Deepness in the Sky. A Fire Upon the Deep, and Rainbow’s End, (parts of which are set in UCSD’s Geisel Library).

Anders Wright is a freelance journalist in San Diego.

RELATED LINKS

Clarion Writer's Workshop

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"I think those programs are a little more retro and behind the curve. We live in a science fiction novel now that we all make together, so to dismiss science fiction is to dismiss the present."