I wonder sometimes what might have happened if I'd moved out of the house when I started college. While many of my friends from high school were reveling in their new apartments and new freedoms, I was returning home every day to my familiar bedroom, eating dinner with the family, and asking if I could take the station wagon out for a group date when my homework was finished. By day I was confronting some rather strange and unsettling philosophies in my classes (the University of Utah being a notoriously liberal institution, at least when compared to the rest of the state), but at night my life differed very little from when I still went to high school.
Oh, I had my small adventures along the fringes of counterculture. I went to jazz concerts. I attended art films at a vaguely seedy theater in downtown Salt Lake called the Blue Mouse. I bought and sold books and records at a sprawling, brick-walled store called Cosmic Aeroplane, where incense scented the air and most of the magazines in stock were printed on grainy gray paper. Cosmic Aeroplane had two separate basements. Stacks and stacks of old used books filled the first basement, and I could spend hours exploring that fusty maze of words and ideas. I only ventured into the second basement once, in the company of several of my high school friends.
I had always sensed something a little disquieting about Cosmic Aeroplane, though I couldn't put my finger on it. I had the feeling that something unspeakable was happening just out of view, behind the scenes, something so vile and occult that I was placing my soul in peril just innocently shopping there for books. When my friends and I ventured into the second basement, I got an eyeful of what was bothering me, although I didn't really understand what I was seeing. This is because I had no familiarity with the term "head shop." We stood boggle-eyed a few moments amidst the incense smoke, black-light posters, and shelves and glass counters overflowing with drug paraphernalia, then beat a hasty retreat.
"That was really creepy," said Luke Thomas on the sidewalk outside, breath steaming in the cold night air.
"No doubt," said Kenny Arlington. "You could feel it all around you. That place was just full of evil spirits."
The three of us shuddered collectively. It was a few months before I dared to enter Cosmic Aeroplane again, even for something as innocuous as buying science fiction novels.
This was me, circa 1985: always ready to believe that everyone around me was far more in tune with spiritual matters than I.
I knew perfectly well how to think for myself. I did it all the time. It's just that, when I reached a conclusion that clashed with canonical Mormon doctrine, I would assume that the error was mine, and I would berate myself for having let my limited mortal reasoning lead me astray.
"O that cunning plan of the evil one!" exclaims the Book of Mormon. "O the vainness, and the frailties, and the foolishness of men! When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not. And they shall perish."
I didn't want to perish. So when I couldn't make my beliefs make sense, I would defer to the ones who seemed to have a better handle on things. And in my circle of acquaintances, that seemed to be almost everybody.
For that reason, I doubt my college experience would have turned out much differently if I had lived away from home. I was far too timid to do anything very outwardly wrong, and as long as there were other good Mormons aroundand liberal school or no, half the students at the U were still MormonI would probably never outgrow that tendency.
Which is why the six weeks I spent at Michigan State University during the summer of 1985 were so significant.
That and the small role it played in sending me to jail a year and a half later.
Just as I was graduating from high school in 1984, I read a remarkable article in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine. Its author was the writer, editor and critic Algis Budrys, a lion on the science fiction scene of the fifties and sixties. He described a writing workshop called Clarion, which took place every summer at Michigan State University, and related his experiences as a teacher there. Early in 1985, a second article appeared in Asimov's. The author of this one was Lucius Shepard, one of the premier young writers in the genre, whose name was routinely mentioned in the same breath with William Gibson and Kim Stanley Robinson. Shepard's article described his experiences as a student at Clarion.
The thrust of both articles seemed to be that, while a talent for writing could not be instilled where none existed, a young writer with talent could progress far more rapidly in an intensive program taught by professional authors than he or she could working alone with only form rejection letters from far-off editors for feedback.
For some time, I had been seeing a peculiar phrase in the bios of many of the authors whose stories appeared in Asimov's: "graduate of the Clarion workshop." I had finally discovered what that mysterious phrase meant, and the profusion of these writers seemed to indicate that Budrys and Shepard weren't just blowing smoke. Clarion worked.
And if it worked that well, then I had to go.
I figured that the summer of '85 was going to be my best and only shot at attending Clarion. I would be getting ready to leave on a mission during the summer of '86, and I wouldn't get back for another two years, so if I missed '85, then my next opportunity wouldn't come until the summer of '89, and that was just too long for me to wait. Besides, I might not have the time or money to spare by then. So it had to be '85.
I sent off for an application right away, but I knew, even if I was accepted for the program, I could never attend unless I somehow wormed permission out of my father.
The straightforward approach seemed best.
I placed the two issues of Asimov's, with the Clarion articles clearly bookmarked, in my father's briefcase one morning before work.
A few days later, I accosted my father in the kitchen before breakfast. He was always the first one up, and he would put a huge pot of oatmeal on the stove to boil. The object among the rest of us, my mother included, was to get up late enough that the oatmeal would be gone and you could eat cold cereal by default and still get out of the house on time.
I rarely won in these reverse breakfast sweepstakes, especially during that first year of college when I had to car-pool with my father. But on that fateful morning, I didn't try to compete. With false cheer, I bounced upstairs from my room in the basement, scooped up a bowl of hot oatmeal, and joined my father at the kitchen table. He was, as usual, watching the morning devotional on KBYU, Brigham Young University's public television station. At the end of the prerecorded sermon, delivered with lethal monotony by one of the blander church leaders, I made my move.
"So," I said, with nowhere near the nonchalance I'd hoped to achieve. I was nearly frazzled with nerves. I hated asking my father for anything. "Did you happen to read either of those articles about the Clarion workshop?"
"I read them," said my father. "I presume you didn't plant them in my briefcase just for my entertainment."
"Let's leave off the discussion of whether or not you can go for now. How would you propose to pay for this thing? It says it costs two thousand dollars to attend."
"That's just an estimate, including travel," I said. "The tuition's only a thousand."
My father waited with raised eyebrows for me to continue.
"I thought I could use some of what I've saved up."
"Your cabinet-making money?"
"That's for your mission," he said. "Those are consecrated funds."
I cringed inside. When Mormons consecrate olive oil for use in anointing and blessing the sick, they recite a special prayer over it. My father had not actually prayed over my paychecks before depositing them in an account I had no access to, but in his mind that money was just as sacred as the consecrated oil at the back of the kitchen cabinet. It was my mission fund. That money was bottled up, labeled, and set aside expressly for the purpose of paying my way through two years in the service of the Lord, and any other use of it was unthinkable.
This was going to be every bit as difficult as I had feared.
Despite its billions of dollars in assets, the Mormon church does not pay its missionaries. Service is strictly on a volunteer basis, with the expense borne by the missionary or his family. You don't even get an honorarium at the end of your service, like you would in the Peace Corps. The object is to induce the greatest sacrifice possible and thus to bind the missionary to the church for life. The more you've given up in service to an institution, the harder it is to break away from it. You hate to face the possibility that all that time and effort went for nothing.
Obviously some parts of the world are more expensive to live in than others. Thus, it used to be that applying for a mission was a lottery in more ways than one. If the Lord called you to Guadalajara for your mission, you might be able to get by on seventy dollars a month, at least back in the mid-eighties. If He called you to Tokyo, it might be more like seven hundred. Either way, you were well-advised to have plenty of cash on hand before applying. If you couldn't afford to pay your own way, you could be supported by the general church mission fund, which consists of donations from members earmarked specifically for that purpose. But the church itself won't help you.
The situation is more equitable today. Each missionary who can, contributes an equal amount to the general mission fund every month. This money is then distributed to missions around the world as needed, with those in less expensive countries subsidizing the ones suffering from higher costs of living. Thus my brother Tim, who went on a mission to Florida in 1994, and my brother Lee, who went on a mission to Japan in 1996, both paid roughly the same amount of money for the privilege.
It's progress of a sort, I suppose.
My oatmeal steamed in the dim light of the kitchen, bleeding away its heat.
"It's only a thousand dollars," I said, aware that this tenacity might cost me far more than that in the long run. "Plus air travel and food. I'll earn that back and more next year."
"It's not right," said my father.
I played my trump card, which seemed less an ace and more a deuce under my father's stare: "It's my money."
As I recall, I had seven or eight thousand dollars in my mission fund. I seriously doubt whether my father had ever stopped to consider the fact that I had earned that money myself, and that morally it was mine to do with as I pleased. Or possibly it had occurred to him, which was why he took charge of every paycheck I brought home.
"Son, that money has been set aside for a sacred purpose. We've been contributing to that account since you were a baby."
"Well, I earned most of it. And I'm not asking for it alljust a little, and I'll earn that back next year."
My father frowned. "Son, why can't you go to this Clarion after your mission? There'll be plenty of time for that later."
The intensity of my need choked my lungs like bronchitis. "I'll probably never be able to take six weeks off during the summer again. At least, not until I'm already a professional writer, and who knows how many years that'll take otherwise."
The frown deepened, as did the crow's-feet at the corners of his eyes.
"And look at it this way," I said. "It'll be the first time I've lived away from home for any length of time. It'll be good preparation for my mission."
He puffed out a short sigh. "This goes against every instinct I have."
"This is what I want to do." I said it with infinitely more conviction than the time I told him yes, I wanted to go on a mission, back on our L.A. road trip.
He seemed to sag, as if the breath had leaked out of him. "Then you can apply."
"Thank you," I said. I tried not to look too triumphant. I wasn't even unhappy to finish my lukewarm bowl of oatmeal.
My father was hedging, as I later discovered. He didn't think I'd be accepted to the program. In fact, he was betting two thousand consecrated dollars against it.
I sent back my application within the week. There wasn't much to itjust a little bit of information and a short story. Applications were judged on merit. If you submitted a good enough short story, you got in.
I spent the better part of that week trying to decide which of my stories to send. At last I settled on one called "Deus ex Machina," about a sentient computer named ARTHUR ("Artificial Thought with Unlimited Resources") who seeks out and kills God, then takes His place as the arbiter of reality. A band of daring scientists, including ARTHUR's creator, must confront the rogue computer in his lair and attempt to topple him from the Divine Throne. It turns out that God isn't really dead, but only woundedwhich makes it a somewhat less daring story than it might have been, at least for a good young Mormon boy, but that was about as far as I dared push my theological speculations at the time.
The story was packed with everything I admired about my favorite science fictionrigorous logic, bold problem solving, daring geek heroes, fanciful invention, and cosmic scope. It was also fairly short on such commodities as rhythm, pacing, character development, and plausible scientific extrapolation, and dosed with a healthy naïveté on the subject of human relationships.
But whatever. Despite its flaws, it was still the truest arrow in my quiver. I wasn't going to turn into Shakespeare, or even Isaac Asimov, overnight. I had to go with it.
The only problem was, the application specified a story of twenty-five pages or less. Mine was more like seventy-fivea novella, not a short story by any stretch.
But it was also double-spaced. I took a deep breath, retyped the whole thing single-spaced, and got it down to thirty-seven pages.
Not ideal, but it was going to have to do. Praying that the judges would let me get away with such egregious fudging, I sealed the story up along with my application, and sent them both winging on their way to East Lansing, Michigan.
One Saturday afternoon in April, the telephone rang. I answered.
A resonant voice at the far end of a long-distance line introduced itself as Professor Landrum from Michigan State University. "Mr. Shunn," he said, "I just wanted to tell you that your application for the Clarion workshop here this summer has been approved."
"That's fantastic!" I said. "Thank you!"
"I just want to confirm with you that you will actually be attending."
I didn't hesitate. "Absolutely."
He went on to discuss tuition and payment dates and residency plans, but I didn't hear much of what he said. None of it mattered. I was going to Clarion! All else was trivial detail.
When I got off the phone I went looking for my father, to break the good news.