Building Worlds with Words: Science Fiction and Fantasy at StoryWeek a review by Elena Colás

The light, airy eighth floor of Columbia College was already buzzing with students, by the time I arrived nearly forty-five minutes early for “The Real Within the Unreal,” a conversation about science fiction and fantasy. Host, professor and Bram Stoker award winner Mort Castle greeted the audience, and a few calls of “Hello Mort!” rang out from his students. Writing can be a very solitary pursuit and it makes such a difference to have a mediator who knows how to engage the crowd. His thoughtful questions encouraged each panelist to examine their own work, and made great use of a group of authors at very different points in their writing careers.

Each one began by reading five minutes of work, led by Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Traveler’s Wife. The audience was treated to an excerpt of the upcoming sequel, which she had once sworn she would never write. She described a time traveler’s sanctuary in Ravenswood with tender and specific detail, striking the fine balance of real and strange.

Phyllis Eisenstein’s energy and sense of humor had a buoying effect on the afternoon. She read from a short story in which a tiny space traveler crashes through the garage of an average earthling. Eisenstein began her writing career in 1969, and she also has a Twilight Zone episode credit to her name, a fact that fellow panelist Jay Bonansinga was especially excited about.

Bonansinga read from The Descent, the latest in the Woodbury Quartet, his series for The Walking Dead. When he explained that he would be reading in a Southern drawl for reasons we would understand when we heard it, I admit I was not sure how the gimmick would play out. Sure enough, after about a minute the text settled into a lilting rhythm, and the Southern gothic style came through easily.

The fourth author and the only one hailing from outside Chicago, C.S.E. Cooney did not merely read. She summoned a whole Greek chorus by chanting a story from her upcoming collection, Bone Swans. Her excerpt was the most quickly recognizable as what you might call traditional fantasy, with names from another world and ethereal, poetic rhythm.

Castle began by asking the artists to define their work, and a common theme arose immediately. Many of our panelists had tried to categorize their work before, only to be told by editors and publishers that it did not fit in the box. Niffenegger remarked that she was trying to avoid labels for that very reason. “But you write science fiction, I know it when I see it!” exclaimed Eisenstein, who defined her own work in the same way.

Bonansinga chimed in that he “doesn’t mind getting labeled, because it’s how I get paid.” The audience of mostly emerging writers roared with laughter at his confession of being a “total slut” in this regard. For her part, Cooney explained that she loved “world-building,” in the vein of Tolkien, an author whose work is re-introducing the kids these days to fantasy.

Nods and chuckles filled the room when the conversation turned to the recent shift in the way reading and writing communities think of fantasy and science fiction. As a student, Eisenstein recalled being asked to select a science fiction book. She chose 1984, and was promptly told it was “too well-written,” to be science fiction. The telling audible gasps and groans from the audience signaled that we have come a long way. Cooney, not wanting to open “that can of worms,” also reminded the crowd that people who would never consider themselves fans of the genre could pick up Twilight or Harry Potter and be immersed almost without knowing it.

Niffenegger and Eisenstein chalked it up to a regime change, explaining that the kids who grew up watching Superman and reading the comics were in charge now, and they would publish whatever they wanted to read. Another interesting answer came from Bonansinga, who hypothesized that maybe we relate more to these stories because our own world is increasingly absurd and challenging. “For the reader, the zombie that just keeps coming back, it’s their mortgage, it’s their bills,” he said. As anyone who has watched the news lately can attest, between the Ebola crisis, global warming and NSA spying, there is quite a bit of “unreal” within our “real” these days.

When the floor was opened for questions, the discussion quickly turned to process. Cooney offered advice she had been given, to not fear the crap and to “sit your meat down” on a semi-regular basis. Niffenegger agreed. “I’m playing hooky right now,” she said. “I have a deadline on Monday, I shouldn’t even be here.” On a different note, she urged young writers to enjoy being alone with their work, before publication brings on the crowd of editors, copywriters and readers.

Eisenstein implored everyone to do the research into what publications are looking for to be sure you are aiming at the right outlet for your work. Cooney agreed, and tied that research into an important point about keeping those small publications alive by reading and subscribing to show your support for the community and for other fellow writers. Castle added a sweet piece of advice for his students, to find or make community who can share in your pursuit. Otherwise “you are going to walk into an Ace Hardware and say to someone, ‘can I share with you a metaphor I just made?’” and it may not go so well.

This panel was both entertaining and successful because the artists were not merely interesting. They were interested. Whether intrigued by one another’s answers, by the field as a whole, by the questions of their lively audience and the guidance of Mort the fabulous mediator, it was clear that they were actively in love with their work.

Science fiction and fantasy invite participation in a way that other genres do not, beginning with the almost theatrical suspension of belief to writing fan-fiction and joining communities like the Walker Stalkers. While there are a growing multitude of forms of entertainment competing with the joy of reading, rest assured that the “unreal” genres are growing more vibrant and varied than ever before. Full disclosure, my reward for finishing this review is another chapter in The Descent. Happy reading, everyone!