Culture Report: World-Class Sci-Fi Is Born Right Here - Voice of San Diego

Arts/Culture UNVEILING THE UNSEEN

Culture Report: World-Class Sci-Fi Is Born Right Here

Clarion Writing Workshop’s long and star-studded history in San Diego, plus plant-inspired art, R.I.P meatballs and a lot of theater happenings around town

The Clarion 2019 class with instructor Carmen Maria Machado / Photo by ‘Pemi Aguda

Tucked away amid eucalyptus groves in the summer-emptied UC San Diego campus, 18 emerging writers (and an impressive cast of visiting faculty) converge for six weeks to learn craft and build a community of contemporaries.

The Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing Workshop began in Pennsylvania in 1968, then was held in Michigan until finally landing at UCSD in 2007. It’s a residential workshop program with a cohort of three dozen students and weekly instructors. Notable alumni and faculty of the program include Octavia Butler, George R.R. Martin, Ted Chiang, Kelly Link, Cory Doctorow, Lilliam Rivera and Carmen Maria Machado.

Modern Contemporaries

“Clarion is one of the most consequential writing workshops in the world,” said alum Cory Doctorow, an author, activist and editor of Boing Boing.

Doctorow said that in addition to being a rare immersive writing experience, the program champions practical and sustainable tools and practices so that students can return to day jobs and families and still remain committed to their writing work.

Shelley Streeby, a faculty member in literature and ethnic studies at UCSD, has been the director of Clarion since 2010 spoke of the workshop’s focus on the art of the critique and providing generative feedback to peers. “I think that community is as important as the emphasis on craft, which is of course also crucial,” said Streeby.

This year’s instructors include Jeff and Ann VanderMeer, Karen Lord, Machado and more. With a rotating cast of experts and mentors, the students learn from their differing strengths.

It’s a competitive program — genre writers from around the world vie for just 18 spots — but the students are selected based on the merits of their application stories alone, using Clarion’s intensive committee-led reading and scoring system. (Applications for Clarion 2020 open in December.)

Diversity in Sci-Fi

“It turns out to often be fairly gender-balanced,” said Streeby. The science fiction and fantasy writing communities are also tending toward greater diversity, with women, people of color and other underserved voices finding representation and accolades, and this diversity has extended into Clarion. “It has been really great to see emerging Latinx writers like Lilliam Rivera now writing these great YA novels that are so important,” said Streeby.

Clarion, however, costs money, Streeby notes — 2019 fees were $5,150 — and that can be a hindrance to creating a truly diverse community. “Not everyone can leave a day job. Not everyone can come up with the funds,” she said. To combat this, the Clarion Foundation provides scholarships (via fundraisers such as the ongoing Clarion Writeathon) when there’s a financial need.

The 2019 Clarion class with Karen Lord / Photo by Shelley Streeby

Once in, the program is intensive. “It’s a pressure cooker,” said Karen Joy Fowler, author of “The Jane Austen Book Club” and the Clarion Foundation chair. “The students spend six weeks in an alternate universe where they are expected to write some stories, read lots more stories, assess the work of their 17 fellow students in painstaking detail, listen to a few lectures, meet privately with each instructor, look at the ocean and manage to fit in some odd nights of sleep. Perhaps an occasional evening of karaoke.”

All Writing Is Genre-Writing

The edges of the debate between “literary” and “genre” have been blurred for a while now, with the emergence of crossover work, the neutralizing of science fiction as technology catches up and the boon of speculative fiction and ambient horror.

Streeby noted that having the genre-transcending Guggenheim fellow Machado as the first week’s faculty set such a tone. “[Machado] said all writing is genre-writing in a way. Realism is a genre. There are conventions for representing the real. We forget that, we naturalize that and we think that’s the literary. But in fact all writers engage genre elements in different ways,” said Streeby. The distinction between literary or mainstream work and genre is becoming less important as the importance of genre is elevated.

Doctorow agreed. “Imaginative fiction is fiction that invites the reader to throw away the dismal constraints of received wisdom and perceived limitations and to dream big, to think about what life would be like under improbable and even impossible conditions, to imagine the first days of a better nation or the dire consequences of inaction,” he said.

In that way, UCSD is the perfect spot for Clarion, and the institutions are collaborating on San Diego 2049 all year. “There are many people at UCSD thinking about the future from within all sorts of disciplines,” said Fowler.

An Imaginative Home in San Diego

Clarion’s faculty reading series is open to the public at Mysterious Galaxy bookstore. And while it might be tempting to stay cocooned in the program, Clarion pushes writers to engage with community and observe their faculty sharing literature out in the city.

The final faculty reading at Mysterious Galaxy is this Wednesday, featuring Jeff and Ann VanderMeer. Jeff VanderMeer’s novel, “Annihilation,” was adapted into the 2018 Alex Garland-directed movie starring Natalie Portman and Tessa Thompson.

A Night Market, New Public Art and More News for the Culture Crowd

The Neil Morgan Auditorium / Photo by Julia Dixon Evans

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