Worldcon 74: Grand Masters Show us a Grand Old Time

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The Grand Master is a lifetime achievement award that is given out once a year at the Nebula Awards by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. It is not given out every single year. To be a Grand Master, one has to have made a significant contribution to the literature of science fiction and fantasy. One also has to live long enough to receive the award, as it is not given posthumously.

This year’s Worldcon is lucky enough to have five Grand Masters, and they put them together in a panel. James Gunn, Joe Haldeman, Larry Niven, Robert Silverberg, and Connie Willis had a chat about the good old days and included us in it. Much of the conversation consisted of memories of Robert Heinlein, who grew up in Kansas City and was the first writer to win the Grand Master Award. They will not all be repeated here, but they were warm and nostalgic memories.

Joe Haldeman met Heinlein at a Nebula Awards banquet. He wanted to meet Heinlein, but was nervous about approaching him. Heinlein came across the room to shake his hand and tell him how much he enjoyed The Forever War.

author Joe Haldeman
Joe Haldeman, by Roger H Goun and used under a Creative Commons Attribution license

Connie Willis is well known for being a lively conversationalist on panels and for her funny and pithy remarks. She lived up to her reputation. She said that her goal, her idea of success, was to be in a Nebula Awards collection. Not even a winner but a runner up would have been fine. To be a Grand Master was like, “wanting shoe skates and getting a pony! A unicorn!”

Robert Silverberg said he had received advice as a newbie writer from James Gunn 59 years ago. Later on, they shared an Ace double together. Silverberg said he had once had a fan ask for a back to back picture with someone he had shared a double with, but that really one of them should be upside down. There was a bit of back and forth about whether he or Gunn should be standing on their head.

When they opened up the floor for the audience to ask questions, the audience was slow to respond. Connie quipped: “The reason they don’t have any questions is because we write so well.”

Robert Silverberg at Worldcon 2005, by Szymon Sokół, and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike license
Robert Silverberg at Worldcon 2005, by Szymon Sokół, and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike license

But the questions started. When asked what stories of each others’ they liked, Silverberg mentioned that he loved one of Connie’s early short stories that I didn’t catch the name of, World of Ptavvs by Larry Niven, and Gunn’s Wherever You May Be. Connie said that as much as she loved Heinlein, she always thought that there was something wrong with Starship Troopers that she couldn’t put her finger on, and Haldeman’s The Forever War fixed it. Joe replied that he never thought of himself as rewriting Starship Troopers until a neighbor who read it pointed it out to him.

When asked about first getting published, Larry Niven said it took a year and a quarter to sell his first story The Coldest Place. Joe said he was lucky. He sold his first story, his first novel, and his first movie script.

Connie Willis said that she had heard that the definition of a famous writer was someone who was too stupid to know when to quit. She said that there was a moment when she came closest to quitting. She always told herself when she got a rejection letter that that was all right, because she had another story at another magazine, and that one would be sure to sell. Because it was a long trek to the post office, she would buy the postage two or three at a time for a single manuscript. (Yes, this is back when you had to go to the post office to mail stuff and when publishers sent manuscripts back.) One day, she got a slip in the mailbox to pick a package up, only to find that all fifteen manuscripts had come back at once. She took this as a sign that maybe she was going in the wrong direction in life. Maybe she wasn’t meant to be a writer. But she still had that extra postage, and she couldn’t let it go to waste. One more round out, and one story sold.

Connie Willis with her 2006 Hugo
Connie Willis with her 2006 Hugo, photo by Kenkonkol, and used courtesy Wikimedia Commons

This is a pretty cool story, especially since it is coming from someone who has won 11 Hugo Awards and 7 Nebula Awards and was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame and is a Grand Master, which makes her the most decorated science fiction writer.

When someone mentioned that Grand Masters usually have done more than just write to promote science fiction, they mentioned that James Gunn is a professor. Actually, he is more than that — he has a well regarded writer’s workshop every summer at KU, and is a juror on the Campbell Awards. Joe Haldeman taught science fiction at MIT. Robert Silverberg has edited. Connie said,”Bob and I did stand up.”

There were other interesting anecdotes. Robert Silverberg said he was earning good money by the time he was a junior in college. His dad was helping him with his taxes and asked incredulously, “How much did you make?” I’m wondering how much parental support for school he got after that.

Joe Haldeman recalled seeing someone at a campfire next to his, while he was camping, and the guy was reading the latest issue of Galaxy. He told him he had a story in it. The guy said ”Bullshit” and left.

Larry Niven said that someone in security recognized his name once. The guy didn’t read science fiction. He found out that a survivalist magazine was using Lucifer’s Hammer as a survival guide.

Larry Niven admires the SAGE (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment) air-defense operator's console, at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California
Larry Niven admires the SAGE (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment) air-defense operator’s console, at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. Photo by Roland Dobbins, and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike license

Connie Willis has Crosstalk, published by Del Rey, coming out in October. Larry Niven has written a short story, by himself, he proudly says, since he’s mostly been doing collaborations in the last few years. Robert Silverberg’s Early Days, by Subterranean Press, came out this year. It’s the second collection of some of his early work, a tribute to that junior in college.

This was definitely a highlight of the convention for me. Listening to the authors that I have read (and read, and reread) for years was a delightful experience. You could tell by the enthusiastic standing ovation that it was for the rest of the packed room as well.

For more coverage on Worldcon, check out this link for articles and interviews.

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Teresa Wickersham

Teresa Wickersham has dabbled in fanfic, gone to a few conventions, created some award-winning (and not so award winning) masquerade costumes, worked on the Save Farscape campaign, and occasionally presents herself as a fluffy bunny or a Krampus.

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