Chapter 2
Gentiles on My Mind

This is Michigan State University in the summer: green, green, everywhere riotous green. No place in Utah was so green as this—vast swards of grassy green, mounded citadels of rolling green, crumpled hectares of leafy green packed around the branches of monstrous, bursting trees. Stolid brick buildings shrouded in emerald ivy leaves stand like isolated and mysterious jungle islands in that wide ocean of green; travelers ply the lanes from one structure to the next through the humid green air like early adventurers daring the deep just to see what lies on the other side.

My taxi, having navigated this torpid marvel of green, deposited me in front of Phillips Residence Hall, a monumental edifice near the edge of campus, crowded with a century's worth of the ghosts of joyless study. In the coming weeks, the presence here of my fellow Clarionites and me seemed almost an affront to the dignity of academia, and our mounting hilarity a desperate attempt to crack the impenetrable carapace of soberness and propriety which had accreted around the place. Inhabiting only two corridors on the ground floor of that massive dormitory, we could have been parasites in the bowels of a sleeping giant. Our unruliness was the only sign of life for miles about, or so it seemed, though an entire world buzzed with commerce somewhere just beyond sight of our remote fastness.

But those are thoughts that formed over the course of the summer. When first I stood in front of my new home in the sodden air of a Michigan afternoon—June 23, 1985, a Sunday—I was thinking how majestic this all was, and how much greater a thrill it was to be here than in church.

This was going to be one fabulous summer.

 

Professor Landrum, a self-effacing fellow with curly salt-and-pepper hair and a bushy mustache, greeted me inside and helped me carry my suitcase and duffel to my room. Together with my briefcase, these items had caused me no end of trouble when I changed planes in Detroit. Having never flown alone before, I had failed to check my bags all the way through to Lansing from Salt Lake City. I retrieved my bags in Detroit, but they were far too heavy for me to carry all at once. Not knowing what other options were open to me, I leapfrogged all the way to my connecting terminal, across the entire breadth of the airport, dropping my briefcase and duffel to the sidewalk, backtracking to recover my suitcase where I had left it, ferrying that as far again ahead of my other bags, dropping it, going back for the rest, and so on. With three hours between flights, I still made my plane to Lansing with only minutes to spare.

Alone in my room, I both marveled at and shrank from its unexpected luxuries: a ten-foot ceiling, a small refrigerator, a comfortable oversized chair, a desk the size of a pool table, a closet suitable for hosting parties, a bunk bed from which I could choose either berth, a PCjr computer from IBM, and a sheaf of orientation materials to sift through. It was a room for two students to share and bump elbows in over the regular academic year. In the summer abandonment, though, it took on the dimensions of a temple, or a tomb.

I unpacked, and as I did my earlier sense of sangfroid began to dissipate. I had managed to avoid the other arriving students on the way in. Now, while they were out roaming the halls, striking up new acquaintances and taking one another's measure, I battened down in my room like a rabbit, decorating my walls with rock posters, and wondering what the hell I was doing there. I wasn't good enough for this. I wasn't smart enough, or brave enough. Around strangers, I consistently lost my voice; I could barely make myself speak out in class back home. No one here would ever take note of me or acknowledge my talent in any way, because I was incapable of giving them the opportunity. Why had I signed up for this?

Late in the afternoon, a leather-clad bear of man with a walrus mustache and a long ponytail interrupted my neurosis by knocking on the door. He introduced himself as Bryan and invited himself in to chat for a while. He was from the fabulous alien land of Baltimore; I confessed that, until this trip, I had never traveled farther east than Denver. He was over thirty, and we had absolutely nothing in common besides our love of science fiction, but he turned out to be much nicer than I ever expected any long-haired biker type could be.

When he left, I felt much better than I had before. The friend tally was up by one, and it seemed possible that it might keep climbing.

 

That evening we convened for our first workshop session—twenty people crushed into a basement room with flourescent lights overhead and walls painted a greasy yellow. As I surveyed the circle of unfamiliar and threatening faces, I became convinced that my optimistic projection of the night before would prove a complete pipedream. My clenched stomach told me that these people would remain utter strangers to me. At least there was Bryan, who sat to my left, a figure as shaggy and comforting as the Cowardly Lion.

Seventeen of us were students, selected from the year's eighty or so applicants, and we came in all shapes, sizes, and ages. Rounding out the slate were Professor Landrum, his graduate assistant Wanda, and our first week's writer-in-residence, Algis Budrys himself—a figure of legend from the late Golden Age of science fiction, and author of the article that had first introduced me to the idea of Clarion. My awe at his presence in our prosaic little circle of folding chairs bordered on reverence.

Budrys called the meeting to order, instructing us to call him A.J. and asking each of us to introduce himself. As we proceeded around the circle, our brief and generic bios dropped to the floor like dead birds in the stale air. There was nothing to mark any of us as special, at least in anyone else's eyes. We remained each sullen and alone, halting and inarticulate in our isolation.

Even so, when my turn came and I announced in a piping voice that I was from Utah, questions pelted me from all sides. "Are you Mormon?" someone asked.

I did not want to admit that I was, but my conscience screamed at me that I must. How many times had I heard lessons and sermons berating those ashamed to confess their belief in Christ? "Well . . . yes."

"What's a Mormon doing writing science fiction?" asked someone else.

"Yeah, I thought that was against the rules or something," said another anonymous face, throwing down the words like a gauntlet.

"Orson Scott Card is Mormon," I said. "And so's that guy who created Battlestar Galactica."

"God, I hated that show."

"I just sold a story to an anthology of Mormon science fiction," I said, stretching the truth just a tiny bit.

"It somehow doesn't seem like Mormons should be writing science fiction," someone said.

"That's actually sort of what my dad thinks." I was trying to field everyone's comments, like a novice tennis player darting from one side of the court to the other.

"You still live at home?"

"Uh-huh."

"You're how old again?"

"Seventeen."

"And your parents let you come here anyway?"

"Well, my dad didn't really want me to come."

"So are you, like, in trouble?"

"Not really, not exactly. He let me apply thinking there was no way I'd get in."

"He told you that?"

"After I got accepted, yeah. He said he wouldn't have let me apply if he thought I was actually going to get in. But then he had to let me come."

"You don't have a problem being Mormon and writing science fiction?"

"Not really," I said, exhausted, and the storm had pretty much blown itself out. Time to move on from the tall skinny kid with the big glasses to fresher pickings.

But as the circle moved on, I was left to realize, for really the first time, how alien my religion, my beliefs, must look to people on the outside. I had my handful of non-Mormon friends growing up, but, at least since the age of six, I had always been part of the majority, and everyone else's beliefs had always been the weird ones, the deviant ones, the mockable ones. Now the shoe was on the other foot. The gentiles here far outnumbered me, and I was the lone defender of my people, my culture, my faith, which everyone around me, even with the best of intentions, would like to tear down and destroy. They would set themselves no more sacred mission than to root out, set fire to, and trample into the dust my testimony of Christ, rendering me a cold-hearted, amoral, and hellbound atheist. Misery, after all, loves company, and no one is more miserable than an atheist.

I had been taught that this would happen someday, but now I would truly be put to the test. I hoped to prove equal to the task.

 

A word about Mormonism and science fiction:

I'm still not sure why people find it so difficult to associate Mormonism and science fiction, when those of us with an intimate knowledge of both worlds see such a natural connection between the two. Perhaps the traditional and widely perceived antipathy between science and religion lies at the root of this misconception. After all, a literature based (largely but not entirely) on the thesis of humankind's manifest supremacy in the universe can hardly coexist peacefully with the idea of God.

But Mormons occupy a unique territory in the landscape of theology. They believe that God lives on a planet orbiting a star called Kolob, where one day equals a thousand of our earthly years. They believe that God has created numberless worlds besides our own and populated them with beings just like us. They believe that, should they remain true and faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ, they will have the chance to become gods themselves in the next life, with the power to create and populate worlds of their own.

These are not things you'll hear right off the bat when the missionaries come knocking at your door, but they are nonetheless genuine Mormon beliefs, which means that Mormons are exposed from childhood to a mind-boggling cosmic vista of possibility and potential. Not every Mormon, of course, discovers an affinity for science fiction—many unthinkingly accuse it of the same crimes my father did, and the best of it certainly challenges the fundamental doctrines of any church—but the ones who make that leap tend to embrace the genre with almost religious zeal. They seem to welcome the challenge like they would a good argument, and even find their faith enriched by it. Perversely, many of these Mormon SF aficionados strike me as more down-to-earth and reasonable in their commerce with the worldly world than their "mundane" brethren.

In 1987, for instance, I made the acquaintance of a rural Mormon bishop by the name of Jaeger. He didn't merely find science fiction to be good recreational reading—he credited it with enabling him to comprehend Mormon doctrine at all. "The Gospel is full of these abstract concepts that I just didn't get when I was growing up," he told me. "But when I started reading science fiction, I started seeing dramatic illustrations of these scientific concepts like relativity and gravity, and I started developing the ability to deal with abstract ideas. And that's when the Gospel clicked for me."

On another occasion Bishop Jaeger confided to me, "You know, Elder Shunn, it's awfully difficult to be a bishop in a small little town like this. I'm supposed to tell all my young men around here that they can only date Mormon girls? How can I do that in good conscience? You've seen the girls here at church. Most all of them are dogs!"

But that's another story.

 

Beginning the next morning, we settled into our routine. Our workshop sessions ran from nine until one, Monday through Saturday. Each started with an hour-long lecture from A.J., after which we would unleash our tender mercies on the victims of the day—those poor unfortunates with new stories to offer up on the altar of sacrifice. While the author of the work under consideration sat mute, we would go around the circle, each participant in turn tendering his or her opinion of the story—or, sometimes, of the author. One student named Bob, a Brooklyn native who rates as one of the three funniest people I have ever known, once led off a critique by saying, "You know, the best thing you could do for the sake of art would be to cut off your hands and bury your typewriter."

The process could be brutal, but at least we flung our slings and arrows at one another in comfort. On the first Monday morning, we decided as a group to abandon our bilious yellow basement room in favor of the main lobby of Phillips Hall, with its overstuffed couches and armchairs. We called this impromptu classroom the Lounge, and it was so comfy that I frequently nodded off during workshop sessions. When once we found the Lounge occupied, we repaired to the lobby of Snyder Hall, a dormitory that sits behind Phillips Hall but faces the opposite direction, like its giant mirror image. We dubbed that lobby the Anti-Lounge, and before long it had become our preferred venue, perhaps because it felt less like we were holding class in our own home.

We could reach the Anti-Lounge without ever setting foot aboveground by sneaking into a wide passageway that led from the basement of Phillips Hall to the basement of Snyder Hall. From there, we could also get into the underground steam tunnels that honeycomb the Michigan State campus, though to my knowledge none of us went exploring there. These are the same tunnels where sixteen-year-old prodigy James Dallas Egbert III holed up during his famous disappearance in 1979. Popular rumor blamed his disappearance on the sinister side effects of his immersion in the role-playing world of Dungeons & Dragons, when in actuality he was suffering from depression born of the impossible expectations of his family and his confused sexual identity. He eventually turned up in Louisiana, but shot himself in the head a year later.

Maybe that's why we all avoided the steam tunnels, where exploration might otherwise have been damn enticing.

 

I enjoyed our workshop sessions immensely, at least when I was awake, largely because I hadn't yet managed to complete a new story and thus had not sampled the particular joy of having someone point out with ecclesiastical fervor that I had used it's where I should have used its. But to sit there in the Lounge every morning amidst that many highly intelligent, articulate, witty, and opinionated people was like being David Banner in a bath of gamma radiation. I felt as if I were soaking up ideas and techniques powerful enough to change me into the Incredible Hulk.

People even seemed to take most of my comments seriously—except for the day I made the mistake of illustrating a point about narrative technique with an example from a book by Piers Anthony. Such hoots of derision arose at my choice of reading material that I immediately reclassified his writing as juvenile hackwork not fit for use as toilet paper, and to this day I have not been able to pick up another of his novels. (In fact, the very week of my return home from Clarion, I boxed up all thirty or forty of my Piers Anthony novels and took them down to the used-book buyer at Cosmic Aeroplane.) I figured that meant I was growing up.

Our afternoons and evenings were reserved for writing, and for reading the stories on the docket for the next day's excruciation. Of course, we also used this time for other activities—staring at blank computer screens, gazing out windows, wandering the halls with glazed expressions while threads of drool trembled from the corners of our mouths. (This is what's called the "writing process," and if I'd bottled all the drool I've spilled over the years while I should have been writing, we could all drink a healthy toast to Dame Saliva, the muse of wordsmiths.) We also affixed blotters to the walls to scrawl graffiti on and played innocent pranks on each other, but by far the most characteristic behavior we exhibited was something we called "schooling."

I'm not talking about getting an education. I'm talking about what fish do—drifting about from place to place in large groups with the appearance of willfulness. As divisive and iconoclastic as we could be in our workshop sessions, as wildly divergent as our clothes, our hairstyles, our backgrounds were, we still had far more in common with each other than we did with anyone else on campus, so when any of us ventured away from the dorm we tended to do so in clumps and clusters. Need lunch? Let's travel by fours. Want to see a movie? Must take eight or more. Shop for books? Can't be done with fewer than eleven.

Oh, how East Lansing trembled to see our boisterous pack roaming the sidewalks of Grand River Avenue! Wary crowds parted to let us through. Cigarette-smoking frat boys stepped aside nervously, trying not to look like they were giving ground. Merchants quietly turned the signs in their shops and restaurants from Open to Closed, and mothers gathered their children to their breasts with reproachful looks.

We were isolated, castaways in our dormant volcano of a residence hall, pariahs among civilized humans, and thank God for it. Otherwise, we might have had no reason to come together the way we did, to cling to one another like lost astronauts floating in space.

 

Late that first week, an unusually small school of us—Geoff, Martha, and me—were returning from lunch at one of the few cafeterias in operation on campus during the summer. We were engaged in a favorite Clarion pastime—talking about those not present behind their backs. In particular, Martha was holding forth on the men of Clarion '85, one by one. A 25-year-old Chicago native, Martha ranked as the champion talker of our group, which might have been unbearable except that she at least had the grace to be interesting as she ran roughshod over all other conversation. "And then there's Bob," she said. "That Bob is one of the two really attractive men at Clarion."

I found this a strange turn of conversation, since Martha was one of the three married women among us. But Geoff found it more than merely strange. "Oh, come on—Bob?" he said. "You must be joking."

"Why would I joke?"

Geoff, with his scraggly copper beard and perpetually quizzical expression, was the epitome of the mild-mannered scientist. He was the only published writer among us, but he was such a nice guy we hung out with him despite that. "Who's the other one then?"

Martha was momentarily stricken dumb. She glanced at me, then looked away just as quickly. "I don't know," she said. "I . . . really don't think I ought to say."

Geoff practically bounced, like a kid pestering his mother for a treat. "Come on, Martha. You have to tell us now."

But Martha refused to say anything more on the subject, no matter how much Geoff hounded her. I kept my tongue as well, pleased but little flustered and confused, and wondered just how interesting this summer would shape up to be.


Featured Book



Use OpenOffice.org