A Report on the 49th World Science Fiction Convention
By Bob Shea
During the week leading up to Chicon V, I discovered to my disappointment that many friends with whom I'd spent time at my two pervious Worldcons—Chicago in 1982 and Atlanta in 1986—were not corning to this one, mostly because money was short. No Discordian Business Meeting? No Libertarian Writers' Mafia? Alas! A lack!
So I was glad that I'd signed up for a lot of program events in the hope that if the con made money I'd be reimbursed the $115 I paid for membership. Now I saw another advantage in being fully booked: I wouldn't be wandering around at loose ends all the time and would have a way of meeting people apart from being introduced to friends of friends or—shudder!—talking to total strangers.
The week of the convention I got a call from Bill Ritch, one of the editors of Prometheus, the newsletter of the Libertarian Futurist Society. Since I live in the Chicago area, he asked me to make whatever phone calls might be necessary to arrange a time and place at the convention for the LFS to present the Prometheus and the Hall of Fame awards.
Every year since 1982—Chicon IV—the two LFS awards have been presented at the World Science Fiction Convention. Every year there's been some kind of screwup. It has crossed the minds of LFS members that this is, as Josef Stalin used to say, "no accident"
Bill had previously called the con committee with inconclusive results. Brad Linaweaver had written them an unofficial "to whom it may concern" letter urging them not to give the LFS the some short shrift previous con committees had. Brad was worried that his letter might have provoked hostility among the committee members, but my guess was that it had simply slipped through some bureaucratic crack.
I began making phone calls. I really got worried when I talked to one committee member who said she'd never heard of the Libertarian Futurist Society and doubted its "legitimacy" and anyway everything was all set and absolutely carved in granite and why hadn't we gotten in touch with the con committee earlier? Fortunately, she relented from this hard-line stance just enough to mention a few other names I could call.
On Thursday I talked about the awards to one K.T. FitzSimmons. She said she'd do what she could, but managed to sound icy and spacey at the same time.
The Libertarian Party was having its convention in Chicago over the Labor Day weekend, so I called Carol Low, the editor of the libertarian magazine Nomos, who said she was sure the LP would welcome our award ceremony. I hoped we could stick to tradition and do it at the SF con, but it was comforting to have an alternative.
The Hyatt Regency overlooks the south bunk of the Chicago River, just where Lake Michigan flows into the river, this being one of the Engineering Wonders of the Midwest. A block or so from the hotel lines of brass plaques on the sidewalk mark the site of Fort Dearborn, built in 1804 in the midst of the original log cabin settlement of traders and farmers known as Checagou. I parked in an underground garage near the hotel.
At the convention registration desk I picked up my badge, which had a clever, useful feature pasted on the back, a computer printout of my schedule, listing times and places.
I checked the Voodoo Message Board, one of the services that Filthy Pierre, aka Erwin Strauss, provides at Worldcons. All con members are listed on bulletin boards. If there's a red sicker next to your name, it means there is a message for you filed alphabetically in one of the boxes by the bulletin boards. Pins formerly were used instead of stickers, whence the nome "Voodoo" I found a message for me—from Filthy Pierre himself, suggesting that we meet at a later time near the message board.
I took the elevator to Bill Ritch's floor. Bill had also talked to K.T. FitzSimmons, who had not yet been able to find a room assignment for the LFS. Bill and I went to a panel on "Censorship from the left", one of a number of panels planned to deal with hostile pressures on SF, fantasy and gaming.
The first speaker at this panel was John Norman, author of the oft-deplored, much-read Gor novels. His example of censorship was an editor who had declared that he would not even look at a manuscript bearing the name "John Norman". He ended his remarks with a resounding call to arms. The panel's moderator, Michael Flynn, a Prometheus Award candidate, responded with a dry, "Kawabunga!"
The other panelists gave similar accounts of encounters with what have come to be called "politically correct" views. I tended to sympathize with the causes the panelists represented but the fact was nobody could point to an instance of censorship in the strict sense of the word—the use of force to prevent something from being published or distributed. The panel left me feeling that the Left—whatever that term might mean—is nowhere near as big a danger to freedom of expression as authoritarian conservatives, Fundamentalist Christians and George "Ban Flag-Burning" Bush.
In the Pocket Program an "m" next to a panelist's name meant that person was expected to be moderator. On Friday, August 30th, I discovered I was "m" for the "Cross-Bred Genre Writers" panel. The other panelists were Nancy Atherton, Ginnie Dazzo, Don Keller, John Maddox Roberts and Lillian Stewart Carl. At the last minute we added literary agent Donald Maass, who had endeared himself to me before I met him with an article in Science Fiction Chronicle entitled "Who'll Get Rich Writing Fiction in the '90s?"
I didn't think this panel would generate much controversy, but we did get an argument going over whether genres per se are a Good Thing or a Bad Thing. The conclusion seemed to be that they are bad for writers who feel imprisoned by them and good for writers who enjoy them (as I enjoy space opera, for example) or for writers who write whatever they feel like writing.
A SFWA meeting was scheduled right after the panel, and when I walked in they were arguing over something I'd always wondered about—whether people like me really belong in SFWA. People like me being those who've somehow gotten enough SF into print to qualify for active membership but haven't published any SF lately.
Under the current rules, originally proposed by Robert Heinlein, as long as (me keeps paying dues (currently $60 a year for active members), once an active member, always an active member. Jerry Pournelle, who seems to be the point man for this particular movement, wants the rules changed so that to retain active membership status one would have to publish an SF novel once every three years or three short stories a year. Pournelle, who defended this proposal with vehemence and bluster, seems worried that SFWA will be taken over by amateurish neophytes whose policies would run counter to the interests of the practicing pros.
I've always felt grateful that SFWA granted me active membership, and as long as I don't write more science fiction I intend to hold my peace about its policies. Still, I resent Pournelle's implication that people who don't publish SF regularly are, ipso facto, fools who would run the organization into the ground, and I jolly well won't vote for a rule change that would deprive me of the right to vote from then on.
In the early evening I met Filthy Pierre, who sat with his breath-powered keyboard in his lap in the big hallway near the Voodoo Message Board. Filthy said that Timothy Leary had showed up on Thursday to register as a participant and had been asked to prove that he really was Timothy Leary. Probably by the same person who never heard of the Libertarian Futurists.
Bill Ritch and I approached K.T. FitzSimmons yet again; we actually met her in person this time. She finally came through with a slot for the LFS award: Sunday night at 6. Bill hurried off to get fliers printed.
I listened to some of the guest of honor speeches but around 8:30 was seized by a powerful urge to eat and left before Hal Clement spoke. I had supper in a Vie de France in the underground tunnels that radiate out from the Hyatt like tree roots. A woman at the next table had the nerve to—shudder! -speak to a total stranger asking me if I was having a good time and showing me a T-shirt she'd bought in the dealer's room depicting Arnold Schwarzenegger as the shotgun-wielding Terminator 2, with the legend, "Hasta la vista, Baby."
Back at the Hyatt I went with Martin Morse Wooster to the Fosfax party. Martin told me the editors had chosen to stop publishing one correspondent's letters because a number of other readers found them offensive. Seems he had murdered his girlfriend and was bragging about it. This had given rise to a pseudo-censorship controversy. I left with three recent issues.
At home Mike was waiting for me, having driven all the way home from Indiana State University in Terre Haute in his well-worn '84 Ford Tempo. I'd been worrying about him in the back of my mind all afternoon. A downer for me this weekend was that he'd be home but I wouldn't be able to spend much time with him. Mike and I had gone together to Confederation, and now I sat up for a couple of hours filling him in on Chicon.
Saturday morning in the Green Room, where participants hung out between gigs, I talked with John Maddox Roberts about his S.P.Q.R. series of historical mysteries set in ancient Rome. He tries to write twenty pages a day, doesn't start until the deadline is almost upon him, writes the whole novel in about two months and does little or no rewriting. Since it has been taking me about two years to finish a novel, I am envious.
That afternoon I was on a panel entitled "High Weirdness Update" with Philip José Farmer, Timothy Leary and Bob Wilson. Again I had that "m" next to my name, and I welcomed it because I expected that the other panelists would be talking about their encounters with consciousness-expanding software, brain machines and virtual reality, whereas I've just been siting home writing books. It was scheduled for Grand Ballroom A, the largest of the conference rooms, and people told me they expected it to be the best attended of any of the panels.
Wilson and Leary were in town primarily to speak at the Libertarian Party convention, which was happening several blocks away at the Marriott, and I wondered how aware they were that they were expected at the science fiction convention. I figured Farmer would show up, since I was told he'd asked to be on the panel. And another last minute addition to the panel at his request was Jim Frenkel, editor and erstwhile publisher, who had long ago worked on Illuminatus! and whose Bluejay Books had published two of Wilson's Historical Illuminati Chronicles. But the panel might consist only of me with no weirdness to talk about and Frenkel and Farmer, whose weirdnesses were an unknown quality to me.
So I was relieved to see Bob Wilson standing by the door to Grand Ballroom A. We hugged each other and he told me Leary, who is about 70 years old, had tired himself out the day before and might or might not come.
The room was packed, with people standing in the back. At 10 after 2 Leary still had not showed up. I decided to start the panel and announced that I would introduce each panelist with a superlative. I called Farmer "the best science fiction writer in America" and Frenkel "the bravest editor of all time." As I was about to turn to Wilson a voice from the rear shouted, "Dr. Leary is coming!" and a moment later another voice called, "Dr. Leary is here!"
Leary strode up the center aisle and by the time he had reached his seat everyone was standing, clapping and cheering. I introduced Leary as "the most important and revolutionary figure of the twentieth century," which he took with becoming modesty, and finally Wilson simply as "a genius."
Weirdness, as expounded by the panelists, turned out to be mostly their observations of domestic and international politics. Wilson declared that he was not anybody's idea of a sound, wholesome American. Farmer said, "I am a sound, wholesome American. I never met anybody else who was, so that makes me the standard."
Leary was full of cheerful energy and kept turning to make warm eye contact with the other panelists as he talked. In his view the USSR was saved from a had-line Communist takeover by Russian youth, inspired in part by the ideas of the counter-culture that are still reverberating around the world. The three young men killed trying to stop armored vehicles menacing the Russian Parliament were hippies, he declared, and one of them, llya Kreshevsky, had spent his life questioning authority.
After the panel Wilson's fans swanned around him, and he asked me if we couldn't somehow disappear. I didn't feel critical of him for that; once when overwhelmed by too many admirers Jesus himself vanished. We ducked through a back door that led to the empty hall next door. Thence, moving fast, we headed for Stetson's, a bar in the hotel, where we raised and lowered a few pints of Guiness's and had good talk for a couple of hours.
I called home and Mike said that Frank Robinson had left a message for me. I called Frank in his room and we made a date or dinner. This was unexpected good luck; at the last two Worldcons I'd spent more time thing to find Frank than I had talking with him.
I went down to the Dealer's Room and bought a "Hasta la Vista" T-shirt for Michael, but couldn't find a copy of Frank's new novel The Dark Beyond the Stars, which I'd hoped to have him autograph for me. One dealer who'd sold all her copies said she wished she had another fifty. I reported this to Frank, and he was gratified but said Tor just hadn't printed enough copies. He said they'd already had to go back for a second printing. A writer doesn't want his book to be sold out, he wants it to be selling out.
Frank and I and two friends of his had dinner in the Swissotel Hotel, a small luxury hotel connected to the Hyatt by underground passageways. Everywhere in the Swissotel, merry folksy Swiss music plays constantly. After an hour or so you start seeing cuckoos.
We had a good couple of hours talk, among other topics reminiscing about the Chicago pubic wars, when Frank was the Playboy Advisor and one of his advisees was his friend, the editor of Gallery, whose office was right across the street.
Sunday I sat in the green room with A.J. and Edna Budrys and Bob Silverberg. Another writer at the table talked about his study of French science fiction, which I gather is in bad shape, partly because French publishers are interested only in American SF and partly because the French stuff is so badly written. These factors, it would seem, are mutually reinforcing. It made me very sad to hear that Isaac Asimov is feeling so poorly these days that he isn't writing, which is like hearing that Niagara Falls has dried up.
I had lunch with Jeanne Cavelos, the editor responsible for Dell's science fiction line, which a few years ago was non-existent except for Illuminatus! and is now gradually expanding. She said Illuminatus! continues to sell briskly—I wonder whether that would make me a "real" SF writer by Pournelle's standards—and they'd like to see Wilson and me work together again. I told her that seemed like a good idea to me, provided the two of us can get our other commitments out of the way.
After lunch I all but ran, being a little late, to the Marriott for yet another panel with Timothy Leary and Wilson and this time Carl Oglesby, one of the founders of Students for a Democratic Society, the most prominent revolutionary organization of the '60s, on "From the '60s to the '90s." I needn't have hurried; when I got there I found the panel hadn't started and Wilson was chuckling because Don Meinshausen, organizer of the event, had been told it couldn't take place unless he produced a paper authorizing it, which he was having double locating.
"Don has to come up with a magic piece of paper or we can't have the panel," Wilson said.
"Typical of the Libertarian Party." Meinshausen found the magic paper, and we looped into a huge hall in which, a short time earlier, the Libertarians had nominated their Presidential and Vice-Presidential candidates. The state placards were still up, and workmen were taking everything apart, stacking folding chairs, sliding movable walls into place, shouting at each other over intercoms. In the midst of this Carl Oglesby talked about his peregrinations in the '60s that had led him from liberal Democratic politics to S.D.S., ending with his conviction that in the '90s the Libertarian Party represented S.D.S. grown up and, he hoped, more powerful. Wilson, when his turn came, congratulated Oglesby on giving his talk in the midst of something like an Ionesco play, with the set being torn apart even as the actors carried on.
I reminisced about how I'd discovered the counterculture as editor of Cavalier back in the '60s and made Cavalier the only girlie magazine to publish articles by Leary and Wilson and about Oglesby's early S.D.S.
After our initial presentations, Leary jumped up to respond to a hostile-sounding question: "Now that women have been liberated from being women, can they be liberated to be women?" Leary told about a conference he attended in Barcelona where nine languages were spoken. A French Marxist woman asked sarcastically, "Dr. Leary, now that you have liberated us, what should we do?" and he answered, "Whatever the fuck you want!" which had the nine translators in their glass booths looking at each other in dismay.
I'd seen Leary before but never really met him, and appreciated being able to observe him close up. He displays great charm, energy and quick wit, apparently not at all depleted by his experimentation with drugs or his strenuous life.
Back at Chicon, we Libertarian Futurists gathered at 6 p.m. in the assigned room or the awards ceremony. Suddenly a woman in a black evening dress appeared and demanded that we vacate the room at once. She needed it—right now—for the Chesley Awards, the major honors for SF artists.
The conspiracy or curse or whatever it was had struck the LFS again! On the program the Chesley Awards were scheduled or 7:30, but they expected to have a cocktail reception before the ceremony, and they wanted time to set up the bar and stuff before the reception. We told the Chesley lady we only needed 15 minutes and talked her into going away.
Bill Ritch presented the Hall of Fame Award to a representative of F. Paul Wilson for An Enemy of the State and I presented the Prometheus Award to Michael Flynn for The Kingdom of the Blind. I said that Flynn's novel dealt with a conflict between free will and historical determinism, and in his acceptance he said he was glad to finally learned what the novel was about.
The Chesley lady interrupted these proceedings after only ten minutes, waving her arms and screeching, but one of our guys flew at her, waving his arms and screeching, and drove her out of the room. We finished the ceremony and dispersed as promised. Martin Morse Wooster had been spreading the word that Golden Apans and their friends would meet after the LFS awards to have dinner together. Eleven of us got together, Bill, Carol, Cosmo, Dave, James, Jeff, Marlin, Nancy, Tom, T Rev and me. As often seems to happen with such large groups, we seemed to spend more time hunting for a place that could accommodate us than we did eating. We ended up in the Hot Dog That Ate Chicago, a fast-food joint decorated in a humorous take-off on the style of the '50s.
I finished up the evening sitting in a circle on the carpet on a lower level of the hotel. T Rev told us about his ideas of God, that he is an audience for whom we perform, or perhaps a performance artist himself. A fellow who sounded suspiciously like an Objectivist told me he had no double getting himself to do anything his reason told him he should do; he had lost 150 pounds five years ago and was keeping it off without difficulty. I suggested he write a book—The Ayn Rand Diet.
The day started with a heartbreaker. Last spring I'd been invited to VolgaCon in Volgograd, USSR; however, the Russian organizers could not pay my plane fare. I wrote back that I would come if it turned out I could afford the transportation. I asked a bunch of questions about what they'd be wanting me to do when I got there. My earnings were poor over the summer, and I let Volgacon's July 15th deadline for informing them on specific travel plans go by. And they didn't respond to my questions. On August 25th I wrote them a letter telling them that very regretfully I wasn't coming. Monday morning, September 2nd a woman on the Volgacon committee called to find out when I'd be arriving—having naturally enough not yet received my letter—and I had to break the news to her that I wasn't corning. I felt terrible because I'd disappointed the Russian fans and because I'd missed what would have been, especially at this moment in history, a marvelous experience.
That day my panel was "SF and Fantasy on the Live Theatre Stage." The other panelists were Ann Chancellor, Carol Severance, Gretchen Van Dorn, Grant Carrington, and a scholar who knew a lot about the many science fiction plays of the nineteenth century but whose name got away from me. I talked about the two stage productions of Illuminatus! Everyone seemed to agree that you can't do science fiction and fantasy special effects convincingly on the stage these days, but should rely on your imagination and ingenuity to come up with exciting gimmicks that suggest special effects. And trust the imagination of the audience to help you.
My last event was a reading from my own stuff, scheduled or 3 p.m., in the Geneve Room, located between two floors in the Swissolel Hotel. Apparently the only access was a flight of iron stairs that ran past a lot of pipes and wheels and things in a space that looked like the innards of a giant steam-driven cuckoo clock. Merry, folksy Swiss music played constantly.
Considering the obscure location, my not being as well known to the con-goers as many other writers, and the timing—the afternoon of the last day of the convention—I fully expected to read to an empty room. As it turned out about eight people found their way to me, and I considered myself fortunate. I read the scene from Illuminatus! in which Otto Waterhouse kills Milo Flanagan and the scene from Shaman in which the band rejects White Bear's vision and decides to raise the war whoop.
After that L. Sprague de Camp came to read. Despite the remote location and the late hour, he drew a pretty big crowd, deservedly so. De Camp's story was about time travel and dinosaurs. My love of science fiction began with an interest in dinosaurs.
And with that I bade hasta la vista to Chicon V. We hadn't had to take to the streets to present the LFS awards, and Wilson and Leary had showed up for the High Weirdness panel. I had spent pleasant hours with Bob Wilson and with Frank Robinson in the same day, had enjoyed myself, hadn't worried too much and even—shudder!—had talked to total strangers.
Indeed do many things come to pass, but generally not the things you expect.