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Prolific Bubonicon pioneer weighs in on science fiction writing

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — During Bubonicon 49, the annual Albuquerque science fiction convention at the Marriott Hotel Friday through Sunday, veteran writer Robert Vardeman will moderate a panel on coming up with story ideas and sit on a panel about overcoming writer’s block.

As the author of more than 300 books of fiction, spanning multiple genres, as well as a dizzying number of short stories, Vardeman, 70, is well suited to talk about generating ideas. But you have to wonder if he has ever had to deal with writer’s block.

Vardeman has written as many as 12 books a year and so far this year has turned out four novels and a half dozen short stories, a rate that, by his standards, suggests to him that he is starting to slow down.

“I think it is malarkey that it takes some people 10 years to write a book,” Vardeman said during an interview in his Northeast Heights home recently. “What were you doing the other nine and a half years? I think writing fast helps me with continuity. I don’t get confused. I’m not making stupid mistakes.”

Into the future

Science fiction is Vardeman’s first love.

“‘Tom Swift and His Flying Lab’ was the first novel I read all by myself, when I was 8 or 9, and I never looked back,” he said.

He is a charter member of the Albuquerque Science Fiction Society, which was founded in 1965, Vardeman’s senior year at Manzano High School, and in 1969 he helped launch Albuquerque’s yearly science fiction convention. It was Vardeman who named the annual gathering Bubonicon in 1971.

“They were going to call it NewMexiCon,” Vardeman said. “But what you really wanted was something people would remember. That year, Egypt refused to issue visas to people from New Mexico because we had (bubonic) plague here.”

Vardeman’s two most successful books are the “Star Trek” novels “The Klingon Gambit” and “Mutiny on the Enterprise,” both published in the early 1980s and both selling 400,000 copies or so to date. But he has not confined himself to science fiction. He has written fantasy, mystery, spy novels, Westerns and weird Westerns.

“I never thought I’d be such a prolific writer or that I would enjoy writing so many different kinds of  fiction,” he said.

He didn’t start out to be a writer at all.

Dreamers

Vardeman, a widower and the father of a 28-year-old son, Chris, is a native of  Mineral Wells, Texas. He moved to Albuquerque in 1963. After graduating from Manzano, he attended the University of New Mexico, earning a bachelor’s degree in physics and a master’s in materials engineering.

Vardeman is infatuated with science, technology and inventions. He intended to be a scientist himself. In 1969 he got a job at Sandia National Laboratories. He left Sandia in 1973 to do doctoral studies in ceramic engineering at the University of California at Berkeley, but while he was waiting to start the program a friend suggested they collaborate on a science fiction short story. The experience changed Vardeman’s plans and his world.

“I had six months between Sandia and Berkeley and during those six months I sold two novels and a short story,” he said. “I thought this is more fun that working 20 hours a day on a dissertation. I could put off going to Berkeley.”

He’s still putting it off. It might have been “The Sandcats of Rhyl,” the fourth novel Vardeman sold but the first published, that cinched his shift from science to writing.

“‘Sandcats’ was the start of the space opera stuff and that was more fun that a guy ought to have,” he said.

Actually, Vardeman does not see much difference between scientists and writers of fiction. Both, in his estimation, rely on the imagination. Both are dreamers.

“The best scientists are the ones who are thinking up the impossible and showing it can be done,” he said. “It’s a little easier for us writers. We think up the impossible, but we don’t have to prove it in the real world. It just has to be entertaining.”

Vampires never die

One thing Vardeman has learned in the writing game is the futility of predicting readers’ tastes.

“I can’t predict these things,” he said. “I thought vampires would have been passé 20 years ago. I thought zombies would have been dead 20 years ago. There is such a wonderful world of stuff out there and we keep going back to zombies. I just hope readers like whatever I’m writing next.”

That might be anything.

His latest published work, an e-book, is “Darklight Pirates,” a space adventure in the same vein as “The Sandcats of Rhyl.”

He enjoys steampunk, science fiction that revolves around Victorian-era steam-powered machinery, and has jumped into that subgenre with work such as 2014’s “Gateway to Rust & Ruin,” a novel about daring aeronauts, air pirates and zeppelins.

Last week, sitting in his second-floor writing room, a space crowded with books and adorned with fantastic and blood-and-thunder art, he knocked out a proposal for a murder mystery, a genre he has not delved into for 20 years.

“The Sixth World,” Vardeman’s entry in “Straight Outta Tombstone,” a 2017 anthology of weird Western stories, is set in 1877 New Mexico Territory and mixes Navajo mythology with visitors from outer space.

Although science fiction is his first love, Vardeman is as comfortable with horse opera as he is with space opera. He wrote 114 of the more than 400 novels in the adult Western paperback series featuring gunfighter John Slocum and published under the house pen name of Jake Logan.

This painting in Robert Vardeman’s home was used as the cover illustration for “Slocum and the Railroad Baron.” one of the adult Western novels Vardeman wrote under the Jake Logan pen name. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

This year, he was awarded the Peacemaker, a life achievement award presented by the Western Fictioneers, an organization of professional writers of Western novels and short stories, for contributions to the Western genre.

And when pressed, Vardeman will tell you that of the hundreds of novels he has written his favorite is “The Artist,” a Western about the early cowboy days of famed Western painter Charlie Russell. It is set against the backdrop of one of the worst winters in Montana’s history.

“It is one of the few books I have written in first person, and I really got the feel for what it must have been like for him in those early days in Montana — the isolation,” Vardeman said. “Being an artist is a lot like being a writer. It is a lonesome, solitary pursuit.”

But that doesn’t mean it’s not more fun than a guy ought to have.

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