Lovers of science fiction movies, books and culture build community at UMass

By Jaclyn Bryson

The sci-fi club stores hundreds of books in Room 108 in the basement of the Campus Center (Christina Yacono/Daily Collegian)
The sci-fi club stores hundreds of books in Room 108 in the basement of the Campus Center (Christina Yacono/Daily Collegian)

Hidden in the back of the basement of the Campus Center at the University of Massachusetts is a library unknown to many. Wooden bookcases hold rows of novels, big and small, hardcover and paperback, beat up and seemingly brand new. Each book cover glows under the dim, florescent lights.

But this is no ordinary treasure trove of literature. Each of these books has something in common.

While the space itself is shared among other student groups, this is still the home of the second largest sci-fi library on the East Coast, maintained by the 51-year-old UMass Science Fiction Society.

And for sci-fi lovers Sam Baldwin, vice president of the society, and secretary Chelsea McQuaid, it’s too difficult a task to pick a favorite amidst all these options.

“’Red Mars’ by Kim Stanley Robinson, ‘A Fire upon the Deep’ by Vernor Vinge and ‘Anathem’ by Neal Stephenson,” Baldwin said, while trying to pinpoint the best read. “It’s just impossible for me to decide between those.”

“Sometimes I don’t always read books while I’m in there because I’m overwhelmed by the book choices,” McQuaid said.

The Science Fiction Society is one of the oldest Registered Student Organizations on campus, with a core membership of about 12 to 18 people who participate in the club for “good memories, good vibes and good reads,” according to McQuaid. On a daily basis, the group will have anywhere from zero to four people wander into the library, spending time lounging in a chair or on the couch reading a sci-fi favorite.

Baldwin and McQuaid both grew up loving sci-fi, leading them to stumble into the Science Fiction Society unexpectedly.

“My parents made the mistake of showing me Jurassic Park when I was 5,” McQuaid said, later adding that after watching the films Se7en and Alien within a week of each other, she was hooked.

As a self-declared, third generation sci-fi fan himself, Baldwin said all sci-fi fans are welcome, but he doesn’t want people to get the wrong impression of what science fiction itself is. Rather, he wants to emphasize that science fiction is broad and isn’t just about space exploration or aliens – a popular misconception.

“…Fantasy, magical realism, urban fantasy, hard space science fiction, soft space opera kind of stuff. Anything in there, including horror and mystery stuff,” he said, all qualifies under the genre. “A lot of people think science fiction only means guys in space, but it’s not.”

In order to spread this vast culture, the society often holds a variety of events to get the UMass community involved. It organizes movie nights, showcasing films such the trio of popular releases it watched during its last marathon: Spaceballs, Guardians of the Galaxy and Galaxy Quest. The group also just relaunched its book club program. This month, members are reading, “A Darkling Sea,” by James L. Cambias, and next month is dedicated to Terry Pratchett, the renowned fantasy writer who died last month.

“It’s kind of like connecting back to your nerdy roots,” McQuaid said, adding that with the book club and the variety of books offered at the library, students get a chance to read stories not found elsewhere.

The society is also heavily involved in many science fiction conventions, using these opportunities to connect to fellow sci-fi lovers and even UMass alumni. For its 50th anniversary last year, for example, the group held a reunion at the Arisia convention in Boston. According to Baldwin, the reunion convention, which the group helped organize in part with the New England Science Fiction Association, brought in people from across the country.

“More alumni pop up at conventions,” he said. “I will sometimes go to conventions wearing a Science Fiction Society shirt, and then I’ll bump into someone else wearing an identical shirt … The New England area, especially around Boston, has a massive science fiction community.”

Both Baldwin and McQuaid said that besides bumping into past UMass alumni who share their passion for sci-fi, they also keep in contact with those in the area. Some come to visit the library, some come to play games, some work at local businesses and one even delivers pizza in the Amherst region, keeping the nerd culture alive in the Pioneer Valley.

“(People say) Massachusetts isn’t a very nerdy state, but I’d say that’s wrong,” McQuaid said.
Yet the club still hopes to do more. In the future, the society looks to expand its presence on campus with more events and more books. The group will soon be getting a projector in the hopes that it can start hosting weekly viewings of science fiction and fantasy shows. There has also been talk of potentially publishing a journal, since many members have taken the initiative to submit original writing and art to the group.

But despite their passion for all things science fiction, both Baldwin and McQuaid agreed that the society has something to offer everyone who shows interest.

“Just as long as you want to read a book and come on down, you should come down,” McQuaid said.

“We’re very welcome. We want people to come down, hang out, read books,” Baldwin said. “There’s no degree of nerdiness you have to be besides just being a nerd.”

Jaclyn Bryson can be reached at [email protected][liveblog]