Thursday, February 20, 2014

Me and the SFF Masterclass

I want to talk to you about the Science Fiction Foundation Masterclass in Science Fiction Criticism.  Since 2007 (with the exception of last year) this has run every summer, as an opportunity for all people interested in writing seriously about SF to develop their skills and broaden their critical toolkit, in sessions that are led (not taught) by a fascinating mix of professional authors, academics and fans.

The information about this year's Masterclass is here. It's conveniently in London, just before the Worldcon, and the opportunity has been taken to recruit a set of class leaders that would otherwise be difficult to get.

I've been on four Masterclasses over the years, and I have enjoyed every one of them.  They are brilliant opportunities for anyone.  For a start, they are great networking opportunities.  The first year I went, the class leaders were Geoff Ryman, Wendy Pearson and Gary Wolfe.  Geoff I knew already, but I hadn't met Gary or Wendy before.  Now, they are amongst my wide range of internet friendly acquaintances; when Gary comes over to the UK I try to make a point of meeting up with him if our schedules permit it.  I've not seen Wendy since, but we exchange comments on Facebook.  At a later Masterclass, I met Mark Bould.  I'm now writing a review of Pacific Rim for Mark's journal Science Fiction Film and Television (okay, he edits it with Sherryl Vint); I think doing the Masterclass helped, in that Mark knew I wasn't just some chancer when I asked if I could do the review.

I've also made a lot of helpful contacts amongst my fellow students.  The first year, I met Karen Burnham (who went on to edit the Locus Roundtable Blog), Stacie Hanes, and Paul Raven.  At another Masterclass I met Jude Roberts.  My social media is full of people I met through the Masterclass.  And that's not to mention the people who I already knew but with whom I strengthened relationships through being a fellow student.  Would Graham Sleight have asked me to be a co-editor on The Unsilent Library  had we not been on the Masterclass together?*  In the other direction, would I have realised that Audrey Taylor was the right person to take over the British Science Fiction Association's London meetings?  Possibly, but who knows?

The Masterclass is also a great excuse to discover new texts, or revisit old ones.  I would probably never have read Mary Gentle's Golden Witchbreed without the Masterclass (nor would Niall Harrison, and you can read about the effect that had on him here).  Nor would I have revisited John Brunner's brilliant Stand On Zanzibar, a novel that seems like a work of the 2000s rather than the 1960s.  And my exposure to new theoretical techniques would have been diminished - I know far more than I would have about Queer Theory through Wendy Pearson assigning several texts for us to read.

One of the great things about the Masterclass is the mix of different levels of experience - it's not just for newbies and postgrads.  Some of the best reviewers and critics we have passed through the Masterclass (Maureen Kincaid Speller, Jonathan McAlmont, and others).  And the fact that you can keep coming back if you want is another advantage - that core should help build a sense of community amongst those writing on sf.  I'm not alone in believing all this - Jude Roberts tweeted me to tell me the year she went it was awesome.

In short, I highly recommend the Masterclass to everyone interested in the field, especially with this year's class leaders.  Don't feel that you can't go because you've had your chance, or that you're too long in the tooth.  I'm going again this year.  You're joining me, aren't you?

*Actually, it turns out, yes he would, since he and Simon Bradshaw asked me to join the project six months before that Masterclass. Oops.