Have you ever read a novel so engaging that you actually pictured yourself in it? Well, dress like a character in one of science fiction writer Harry Turtledove's works, and you just might win the chance to enjoy breakfast with the guest of honor at Balticon 32, one of the area's largest annual science-fiction conventions.
It was over a breakfast of bacon and eggs that Turtledove came up with the idea for one of his quirkier short stories. As he recalls, "I thought, 'This tastes good. I wish to heaven it was kosher.'" Soon, he had thought up the principal idea behind "The R-Strain": Scientists develop a pig genetically engineered to meet the criteria of a kosher animal, and a rabbi is called in to judge if the meat is still verboten.
Interesting table talk indeed.
Turtledove's defining work, however, is of a different genre, what he calls "historical fiction." Also known as "alternate history," this brand of fiction entails tampering with one historical fact and then speculating what the repercussions of that change would be.
Among the what-ifs Turtledove has tackled is a world where America never fought a war of independence against England, in "The Two Georges," a collaboration with Richard Dreyfuss (yes, that Richard Dreyfuss).
So, how did a science-fiction writer end up collaborating with the star of "Mr. Holland's Opus" and "Krippendorf's Tribe"?
"That he was interested in working with me was a big surprise," says Turtledove in a phone interview from his home in Canoga Park, Calif. "I was bringing my kids home from school and my wife was like, 'You'll never guess who called.' Apparently he had liked my work for a long time."
And the rest, as they say, is history. Well, alternate history.
Turtledove says he "got interested in history through science fiction."
At 14, he read L. Sprague de Camp's 1939 classic "Lest Darkness Fall," the tale of an archaeologist zapped into sixth century Rome. Turtledove found himself intrigued by "how much was real and how much [de Camp] was making up."
After an aborted foray into electrical engineering, Turtledove earned a Ph.D. in Byzantine history at the University of California Los Angeles.
This training has come in handy, because science-fiction fans have a notorious eye for detail.
"When I was writing Byzantine stuff, I was on fair ground," Turtledove says. "When I did 'Guns of the South' [about the American Civil War], that was much more intimidating, because people will pick nits. I did a year and a half of research before I wrote the book. You always feel the responsibility to get the details as straight as you can.
"I feel that doubly, because a lot of what I do [in historical fiction] depends on making things that didn't happen seem plausible. If you make a mistake, it damages the credibility. Reading any fiction depends on suspension of disbelief. [With factual errors], that comes crashing down on your head."
That thoroughness has reaped its benefits. In 1994, his novel "Down in the Bottomlands" won a Hugo Award, the science fiction industry's highest honor. The road to such accolades wasn't an easy one, though. Turtledove says it took "being stubborn enough to send a story out after a few rejections [until a publisher said,] 'I like this well enough to pay for it.'"
Because an editor did not think readers would believe "Turtledove" was his real last name (it is), his first two novels were published under the more Nordic nom de plume Eric Iverson.
"When I sold my first novel, my publisher unilaterally changed my name," says Turtledove.
Then, he says, "When I sold my series of four Byzantine novels, the editor there said, 'I want you to be "Turtledove," because people will remember the name.' I think I was the first author to have a pen name and then have his real name imposed on him."
Turtledove is also a fan of the science-fiction convention scene. He went to his first convention 20 years ago and has attended many since.
Balticon 32 will be Turtledove's first visit to Maryland, but his family has roots here: His grandfather immigrated to the United States through Baltimore after fleeing the czar's army in Russia.
"[Conventions are] the best way to meet people like yourself, people who like to read what you do," he explains. "In this business, I have acquaintances all over the country. [At conventions,] I get to meet them in person."
Turtledove's three daughters, ages 13, 11 and 9, have followed in their father's footsteps and are also convention attendees.
Turtledove's children aren't the only youngsters discovering the joys of science fiction.
When asked about the changes he has seen over the years, the Baltimore Science Fiction Society's Paul Loeschke says that there are more youth in attendance than when he first got involved, and, "People who used to come as kids now bring their families."