How UCR’s Eaton Collection Helped to Make Me a Science Fiction Writer

Trouble appears to be brewing at University of California, Riverside, home of the Eaton Collection of Science Fiction and Fantasy. According to UCR professor and science fiction writer Nalo Hopkinson, “[the] new library administration doesn’t seem to appreciate the value of the Eaton Collection or the expertise that goes into it.”

I attended UCR from 1990-1994, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Political Science and a minor in Journalism. They have an excellent creative writing program there, and I was fortunate enough to take some of my fiction classes from amazing writers like Susan Straight and Stephen Minot. Professor Minot used to try to steer me away from genre-writing, but Professor Straight was always encouraging. Both helped make me the writer I am today.

But with respect to science fiction, I owe my biggest debt to UCR’s Eaton Collection. I don’t know about other fans, but when I started reading science fiction, I was a one-author reader. Someone turned me on to Piers Anthony, and for nearly six years, from junior high through high school, Piers Anthony is virtually all I read.

While at UCR, I wanted to branch out. I knew that science fiction had a rich and rocky history, and I wanted to learn more about it. In 1992, about halfway through my tenure at UCR, a new “slick” science fiction magazine hit the shelves, Science Fiction Age, edited by Scott Edelman. What I read in those pages began to give me an idea of how varied science fiction could be. I not only read new and wonderful stories, but learned about many writers I’d never heard of before.

The thing is: I was a college student. I barely had money for rent, let alone buying science fiction books. And that is where the Eaton Collection comes in. I can’t remember exactly how I learned about the Eaton Collection. It’s possible that a professor mentioned it to me, or its possible that I wandered past it in the Tomás Rivera library one day. However I discovered it, it was a life-changer.

The Eaton Collection had everything, and I was able to looking through it and read stuff that I would not have been able to find in a bookstore, even if I could have managed to scrounge up the money for it. Thanks to the Eaton collection, I began to read much more widely in science fiction. I discovered Harlan Ellison through the Eaton Collection. I discovered Connie Willis, and perhaps most important to me, I discovered Barry N. Malzberg, whose fiction taught me that science fiction could be literary while also being science fiction. Decades later, Barry would become a mentor of mine. I’m almost certain that would not have happened had I not had access to the Eaton collection. And without broader exposure to science fiction, I don’t think I would have had what it take to be a published science fiction writer.

There were many others that I discovered through the collection: Robert Silverberg, C. L. Moore, Octavia Butler, and William Gibson to name just a few.  Collections like the Eaton Collection have value beyond the rare items they contain. The provide a window into the genre for people who might not have the means or opportunity to otherwise peek inside and what’s there. These collections need to be protected like the national treasures that they are. They should be grown and preserved for the next generation of science fiction and fantasy writers, because, truth be told, without collections like these that are available to people, it’s hard to grow those future generations of writers, fans, and scholars of the genre.

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