Book covers


Stranger than fiction

UChicago nerds don’t just read science fiction. Some of them write it.

Eugenia Williamson, AM’06

Mike Resnick, X’63, has published more than 100 novels, 250 stories, and a handful of screenplays. He has five Hugo Awards, and his 1989 story Kirinyaga won a Nebula Award, one of the highest honors in the world of science fiction. The guest of honor at the 2012 World Science Fiction Society’s annual convention, WorldCon, in Chicago, he is also six credits shy of graduating from the University of Chicago, where he started as an undergraduate in 1959. “I was turning down freelance assignments in order to go to college to learn how to be a freelance writer,” Resnick says, “and one day the idiocy of that struck me and I quit.”

Resnick’s not the only UChicagoan who has gone on to science fiction. In fact, WorldCon convened a panel at the 2012 event, “SF at the University of Chicago over the Years,” featuring Richard Garfinkle, X’83; Kenneth Hite, AM’90; Alessandra Kelley, X’87; Joshua Koppel, X’86; Bradford Lyau, AM’78, PhD’88; John Scalzi, AB’91; and Jan Howard Finder, SM’64, known professionally as “The Wombat.”

The Science Fiction Club at UChicago, known colloquially as Skiffy, has a storied—if occasionally inactive—history. In 1957 the club hosted lectures from Robert A. Heinlein and Robert Bloch, published in a book that would inspire young Resnik, then living in Highland Park, to attend. But by the time he got to college, he says, “Nobody seemed to care anymore.”

Scalzi doesn’t recall a robust Skiffy from his days at the College either. Yet Scalzi found the inspiration for two science-fiction series, three stand-alone novels, and more than a dozen short stories. A 2009 Hugo Award winner, Scalzi is best known for his novel Old Man’s War (optioned by Paramount Pictures and attached to Troy director Wolfgang Petersen) and its sequels. Outside the sci-fi universe, Scalzi is known for his extraordinarily popular personal blog, Whatever, where he writes funny, thoughtful takes on Reddit anonymity and step-by-step guides on how not to be a creep.

As a first-year, Scalzi wrote columns for the Chicago Maroon, ascending to editor his fourth year. “I have a degree in philosophy, but in fact I majored in the Maroon,” he says. After graduation he went on to write film reviews and humor columns for the Fresno Bee, a background that has served his fiction well. “It allows me to write really quickly on deadline,” he says. “You get used to the idea of not being precious about your writing.”

Throughout his two-decade career of creating alternate worlds, Scalzi has encountered other alumni throughout the tight-knit science-fiction community. He ran into James Cambias, AB’88, at this year’s WorldCon.

Scalzi was Cambias’s “first editor” at the Maroon, says Cambias, who majored in history and the philosophy of science and minored in astronomy. After graduation he tried publishing before writing for an aviation-history magazine and role-playing game companies’ in-house publications. Since 2004, he’s been a publisher of Zygote Games, the company responsible for the card games Bone Wars and Parasites Unleashed.

Cambias sold his first story in 2000 and has since published 14. In 2001, he was nominated for a John W. Campbell Award for the best new writer in the field. His first book, A Darkling Sea—about a group of scientists who make contact with the inhabitants of an ice-covered planet—will be published by Tor in 2013. “I got a very good grounding” in the College, he says. “I have at least a better-than-average layman’s understanding of astrophysics.”

Unlike his fellow alumni at WorldCon, Cambias was active in Skiffy as an undergraduate. His reading habits also led him to his future wife, Diane Kelly, AB’90, who helped found Scav Hunt with Cambias’s roommate, Christopher Straus, U-High’84, AB’88, MD’92. “She kept coming over to our dorm room and liked the books that I had on my shelf.”

That fantasy paperbacks should foment young romance and undergrad newspaper colleagues should meet again on the convention floor seem par for the course at the College. Scalzi provides a pithy explanation for the University of Chicago sci-fi connection: “We’re a bunch of nerds.”


A small sampling of the science fiction books written by UChicago alumni. At the Harold Washington branch of the Chicago Public Library, Mike Resnick’s books occupy an entire shelf. (Photography by Tom Tian, AB’10)