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Science fact & fiction: Three New Mexico authors see parallels between the genre they write and the current world situation

Albuquerque author Robert Vardeman has written more than 300 novels. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Tuesday night found Melinda Snodgrass, a New Mexico science fiction writer, in a Flagstaff hotel room eating takeout food from an Olive Garden, trying to find some kind of serenity after a stressful and taxing day as her 18-year-old cat, Kimchee, rested nearby on a bed.

Snodgrass, who writes for print and television, splits her time between Los Angeles and Santa Fe. Tuesday morning, she and Kimchee left Los Angeles, heading for Santa Fe in Snodgrass’ 2018 Tesla electric car.

Los Angeles, like much of the rest of the world, has been shutting down in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, and Snodgrass decided she would rather face the pandemic in the state in which she grew up.

Tucking it in at Flagstaff, she reflected on a day, on a couple weeks, that seem more like an episode of the old “Twilight Zone” TV show than life as we have known it.

“It feels very familiar,” she said in a phone interview from the Flagstaff hotel. “We have been talking about dystopia (a post-apocalyptic state), reading dystopias and writing dystopias for years. So it feels familiar.”

Cozy catastrophe

Life as it is now – with most of us confined to home, getting out only for a walk in the sunshine or a quick trip to pick up mail, prescriptions, another bottle of water, an extra loaf of bread – is something we might have read about in a science fiction novel, seen on TV or at the movies but never before experienced personally to the extent we are dealing with now.

“I feel like I’m in what (science fiction author) Brian Aldiss called a cozy catastrophe,” said Walter Jon Williams, a writer of science fiction and fantasy who lives in Belen. “We have clothing, shelter, enough food in the fridge to last a month, and everything works. But everyone is gone. We just don’t see people. I went for a walk to the park today and saw one person.”

Williams, 66, has written more than 30 novels and plenty of short fiction. He has won two Nebula Awards, presented by the Science Fiction Writers of America.

He earned one of those Nebulas for a 2004 novella titled “The Green Leopard Plague.” Unlike coronavirus, the green leopard plague is intended to benefit mankind.

“It’s a man-made plague that started in refugee camps,” Williams said. “It gives people the ability to convert sunlight into food within their own bodies. It only works if you are starving and stand in the sunlight. If you have enough food, it is inactive.”

So this fictional plague saves people’s lives, but a disquieting side effect is that it leaves green spots on the bodies of those people.

Williams is disquieted by coronavirus, especially what he perceives as this country’s slow response to the disease.

“We should have been on this since the middle of December,” he said. “I think the odds are now that we are all going to get it. The purpose of isolation is so we don’t all get it at the same time and overwhelm medical facilities and personnel.

“And I think we are already in a (economic) depression. Manufacturing is already shut down, even though it can start up at any time.”

But he’s not talking about the end times. He is hopeful.

“The thing about the U.S. is that it is very big and very rich,” he said. “We have all these people trying to find solutions on their own because we are getting no direction from Washington.

“Right now, I am rejecting the counsels of despair, but I’m isolating in place.”

And writing, of course.

Fingers crossed

Albuquerque author Robert Vardeman, 73, has written more than 300 novels, sometimes as many as a dozen books a year, in a variety of genres.

But science fiction is his first love. He is a charter member of the Albuquerque Science Fiction Society, which was founded in 1965 when he was a senior at Manzano High School. It was Vardeman, who, in 1971, named the society’s annual convention Bubonicon in recognition of cases of bubonic plague that had been detected in New Mexico at the time.

So he is aware of plagues that have threatened New Mexico in the past and has written about epidemics in novels such as “A Plague in Paradise,” “The Infinity Plague,” “Crisis at Starlight” and “Space Vectors.”

Melinda Snodgrass

“But all the plagues I write about are on other planets, and in general, all my plague stories dealt with the aftermath,” he said.

Coronavirus, however, is on this planet, in this country, in New Mexico, in Albuquerque, right now.

“It’s scary,” said Vardeman, who has a bachelor’s degree in physics and a master’s degree in material engineering, both from the University of New Mexico. “I’m not sure what is going to happen just before the end is written. Is it going to end on an upbeat plane?”

He would like to believe that the many dollars and years that have gone into AIDS research to learn techniques for attacking recalcitrant viruses will pay off in an effective way to combat coronavirus.

“Fingers crossed that someone will be able to see a parallel with things we have been doing,” he said. “I have always been in favor of happy endings.”

Alone again, naturally

Snodgrass, 68, who wrote several episodes for “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” is a fan of space opera, all-out adventure stories set in distant galaxies.

But she appreciates and respects real science, and her Edge series of novels – “Edge of Reason,” “Edge of Ruin” and “Edge of Dawn” – champion reason and technology over fanaticism and magic.

She believes that failure to heed the warnings of science can lead to all kinds of dire consequences, including pandemics such as coronavirus.

Walter Jon Williams

“Global warming is defrosting the tundra,” she said. “Viruses buried in the ice, things that have been frozen, are waking up. And we have no defenses.”

That’s the story told in “Who Goes There?,” a 1938 novella written, under a pen name, by John D. Campbell and made into a movie three times, first in 1951 as “The Thing From Another World.” Science fiction has in the past and continues to become science fact.

Snodgrass fears that a slow reaction to coronavirus will mean a higher death rate from the disease than otherwise would have been the case.

This past Tuesday night, she just wanted to get home to Santa Fe, settle in and wait it out, just her and Kimchee.

“Alone,” she said. “But alone is usual for writers.”

It’s familiar.

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