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Greetings from Fan-land

COSine headliner and sci-fi icon extends a hand across the author-audience divide



Fans of science fiction are thought to be the most socially awkward of obsessives. But sci-fi fandom actually foreshadowed the Internet Age, in which virtually everyone seeks like-minded souls by joining Facebook.

We are all geeks now.

Fandom is more integrated into the history and culture of sci-fi and fantasy than any other literary genre, certainly, and perhaps even any other leisure activity, with the possible exception of soccer. If not for fandom, we would not have Frederik Pohl, or Isaac Asimov, or any of the writers from the "golden age" of sci-fi, who started as convention-going fans.

And if not for fanzines, there might not be Hugo- and Nebula-winning author George R.R. Martin, who'll headline this weekend's COSine convention at the Best Western Academy Hotel.

Having started as a fan and writer of fan fiction, Martin's best known for penning the epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, about the machinations of several rival families fighting for control of a mythic world called Westeros. He's written for television, including the new Twilight Zone and Beauty and the Beast. These days, when Martin hits conventions, it's as a guest of honor rather than an attendee.

Obsession, for men

"Fandom goes back to the '30s," says Martin. "In those days, science fiction didn't enjoy a very good reputation ... [sci-fi] was stuff only nuts went in for, so the nuts sought out like-minded souls and founded fandom to reinforce them."

Fanzines led to other underground publications known as zines. Those zines, in turn, catered to much the same audience as the altweekly you're reading now. See, you are a geek.

Likewise, science fiction is no longer a niche interest, Martin says, but omnipresent. A lot of the credit goes to a sense now so prevalent on blogs and social networking sites that the writer and reader are part of the same community.

Martin got his writing start early, selling fantasy stories to neighborhood kids for a few cents to buy Milky Way bars. An avid collector of comic books, he once tried to outgrow the hobby by giving away his collection, but was sucked back in with the arrival of Stan Lee, who was launching the Marvel revolution in the 1960s.

Martin was so inspired by Lee's genius that he wrote a letter and got it published in Fantastic Four #20.

"In those days, if they published your letter, they put your whole address in," he remembers. "And I got letters from all over the country."

Martin got suckered into one chain letter that promised a big return if you sent a quarter to the person at the top of the list, then erased the name and sent it on to 10 friends. Martin sent in a quarter taped to a blank index card. The recipient, it turns out, was selling a superhero fanzine for a quarter, and assumed Martin wanted him to send an issue.

The amateur writing in that fanzine inspired Martin because he knew he could do a better job. He started sending in stories and getting feedback, and sold his first story to Galaxy in 1970 while a 21-year-old journalism student. By 1979, he was selling enough to start writing full-time.

Time magazine has described him as "the American Tolkien." But what attracts fans to Martin's work, according to regular convention-goer Paul Bobbitt, of Westminster, is that Martin breaks with the famous high fantasy author's clear-cut divisions between good and evil.

A Song of Ice and Fire, says Bobbitt, is "very convoluted and has many twists ... Martin is not afraid to kill off characters." He adds that as chaotic power struggles ensue, with ample scheming and betrayal, your opinion about a character can change completely.

Wrong and copyright

Fanzines are often associated with Star Trek because they flourished among fans starved for new adventures of the cancelled TV show. Fanzines and conventions let the show live on, and helped maintain enough interest for it to be revived as an animated show, and a decade later, movies and several television franchises.

It was long thought that characters could not change in television shows; that way, the shows could be watched out of order. But with cable series like The Sopranos and the advent of full-season DVD rentals, it soon became possible to do long, intricate story arcs. That finally made it possible to produce a loyal interpretation of Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, to which HBO purchased the rights in 2007.

Considering the role fanzines played in Martin's career, you might think he'd favor fan fiction. But Martin is actually a vocal critic of people writing in another author's universe, because it can endanger that author's copyright. The fanzines he wrote for, he says, respected copyrights.

"I wrote about superheroes, but they were my superheroes. I knew better than that, even in high school," he says. "Spock and Han Solo are fascinating characters, but ... inventing characters is part of what you need to learn how to do."

All legal land mines aside, Martin manages to maintain strong relationships with his fans. He attends Worldcon, the world's largest annual sci-fi convention, and has a reputation for being one of the more accessible authors there. He also has a good relationship with his fan club, Brotherhood without Banners (taken from the name of an outlaw group who protected the weak in his Song of Ice and Fire series), which boasts more than 1,000 members.

"You actually meet the people who are reading your book," he says of the convention experience. "That's important for a writer."

And, he adds, they throw a good party.


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