Tribal Gatherings

- by Elaine Isaak

Barry B. Longyear, the esteemed author of Enemy Mine, The God Box, and many other marvelous works, says that an important reason why we write is to identify other members of our tribe:  those individuals who recognize something primal in our work, something that sings to their spirits as to no others, and calls them together.  After a couple of decades of being involved with the community of science fiction fandom, I believe he’s right.

I started out attending Star Trek conventions (shudder!).  Likely you are familiar with these, by reputation if in no other way. One or more of the actors from the Star Trek universe takes center stage to an adoring crowd who ask for hugs (from Patrick Stewart) or a smile (from Brent Spiner) and dote upon their every word.  When you’re a fourteen year old geek, this is heaven.  Then you go out and stand in a very long line to acquire an autograph that all of your friends can appreciate.  But, after a few years of this, I found that this was not for me–some of my tribe could be found here, talking about stories they wanted to write or comparing the plots of the new episodes to the classic SF novels we read under the covers at night.  In the back pages of a media magazine, I discovered that a convention could be so much more. . .

My first real SF convention was a college con entitled Not Just Another Con IV.  Having never *been* to “another con”  I didn’t really know what they meant.  But I did know they screened movies I loved, sponsored a scavenger hunt, and featured some writers of the stories that transported me off-world.  So I rounded up a few of my high school buddies, and a mom willing to drive us down to UMass Amherst, and we collected as many items from the scavenger hunt list as we could.  Alas, we came in third.  But we also watched “The Princess Bride” on the big screen, with a roomful of people who not only felt like cheering when Inigo Montoya gets his day–they actually did.  I had found my people.

Still, a few years passed before I became a regular at the cons, and I was startled the first time I recieved a Participant Questionaire, implying that I might cross the final boundary and sit on the other side of the table, not simply a member of the audience asking questions and hearing from the authors they admired, but an author myself.  Now, I attend four or five conventions a year, often sitting on panels, giving readings, or running workshops for beginning writers.  I have the pleasure of talking with some of the authors I love as peers, rather than as a fan.  I am not yet a tribal elder, though I can aspire to that status.  perhaps I am an initiate, allowed to don the mask from time to time, or paint my face and join the inner circle, where I hear whispers of the Mysteries of Publishing.

This weekend, I have returned from Readercon, a highly literary convention in Burlington, Massachusetts.  I was awed, and sometimes bewildered by the erudition of the critical reviewers.  I was welcomed by author-friends I see no other place.  I spoke to readers about what they found in my work–delighted them with news about the next book, dismayed them with the stories of all that will happen before it appears.  I introduced a few novices the people they need to know, and hid furtively in empty rooms in the wee hours of the morning to tap out a few more words, a few more pages, of my on-going contribution to the knowledge that we share.  Science fiction and fantasy are not only genres of literature, but also a sort of collective memory extending all around us, a web of connections carried through the books that we read and the ideas that they transmit.  We are transformed by them, we seek to transform them in our turn and send them on again across the distances that seem to intervene.

My tribe is peripatetic.  I can find members on either coast, or in many cities in between.  It is a curious comfort to walk into a hotel lobby a thousand miles from my home and be greeted by name and invited to join the conversation.  We are on-line in great numbers, swapping the names of new writers, wondering about the potential of immortality, theorizing about the biology of dragons.  We celebrate the discoveries of science almost as much as the mysteries that still remain.  We delve into the mythos and deconstruct it, to recreate it and make it our own.  We are the builders of worlds, the bearers of rings, the tinkers of space and time.

It is a wild, wonderful tribe, and I’m proud to be a member.


  1. Thanks Elaine! It’s nice to hear from a female scifi writer. It’s always fascinating how you can take what’s real today and twist it just a little to become something from the future or another dimension. :-)

  2. You are a new to me author.
    Now I need to go google your books.

  3. “I had found my people.”

    Ah, yes — that’s exactly the feeling I had when I stepped into the writing community.

    I knew I had found my people when I admitted I heard characters’ voices in my head and everyone said, “Yeah, isn’t it great when that happens?”

  4. Thank you for providing a different perspective. I know that Ninc is trying broaden it’s base and move beyond the perception that it’s only for romance writers.

    However, so far, most of the blog writers have been from the romance genre (or erotica).

    I look forward to hearing more from the SF, Mystery, and Thriller writers.

  5. I did not attend Readercon this year, but enjoy that sense of ‘belonging’ when I do. It’s great to be around people who would never think to interrupt a writer with the words: Hey, since you’re not doing anything …

    Congratulations on your continuing success, Elaine. :)

  6. Hanging out with you was a highlight of this year’s Readercon, Elaine. Glad to be part of the tribe.


  7. Being a fairly recently-retired submariner, I haven’t really had much opportunity to make it to cons. (Though I’m looking forward to David Weber’s appearance at MarsCon here in VA next month …) I’m pretty far behind on my reading, too.

    I never considered trying to become a “writer” before. Those were the incredibly talented people who spun the stories I enjoyed so much, beings far beyond my feeble cmprehension. I just made up little stories to amuse myself, and my children when I managed to be in port. It wasn’t until my daughter expressed an interest in writing, but lacked the conficence to try, that I gave it a shot. I don’t know if my success with my submission to AlienSkin (my first attempt!) was a fluke, but I’m hooked.