Monday, July 19, 2004

All bozos on this bus: A 1980 science fiction memoir

Cory Doctorow notes with amusement that in the span of a few short months in this year of 2004, both the Democratic Party National Convention and the World Science Fiction Convention will be held in Boston. He links to a handy guide for telling these 2 sets of conventioneers apart.

More info about the Dems in Boston.

More info about Noreascon Four. Also in Boston.

All of this takes me back to the end of August 1980. I was 27. The guy I’d been living with since 1974 had just come out to me, and I was spending the summer reeling from the shock. I mean, how could I have not known? How did I not see this? I could understand being rejected for another woman, but for another gender? Confusion. Self-hate. Pain. Pain. Pain. I lived on quarts of Haagen Dazs dulce de leche ice cream; I smoked -- a lot, nearly two whole packs each day; and I did not sleep at all.

Sometime earlier I'd seen an ad in the local alternative weekly from somebody who was organizing a trip to the World SF Convention over the long Labor Day weekend. I don’t remember why that item got me up and out of my Summer of Suffering funk, but it did. I decided to take some vacation days, go to Boston with a dozen people I’d never met before, and celebrate my 28th birthday at Noreascon Two, aka WorldCon 1980.

I was always one of those “SF readers are born, not made" people, who was hooked by the time I reached 3rd grade. The first SF book I remember reading was Lucky Starr and the Pirates of the Asteroids , and that was it: I was lost. Then came the rest of the Lucky Starr series...(I wanted to be Bigman Jones and have those cool boots.) Then Eleanor Cameron's Mushroom Planet books... After that it was Heinlein’s Time For the Stars, then the Otis Adelbert Kline Prince of Peril series…
That was it. No turning back.

None of my friends read SF or Fantasy. Although I went to three or four Minicons during the 70s, I wasn't much of a joiner and just kind of hovered around on the fringes of the Minneapolis fandom scene, which was perfectly alright with me. Sometimes being among fans was the most blissful thing imaginable, and at other times those could be the loneliest hours you'd ever spend.

At the time, WorldCon sounded like the perfect prescription for everything that was ailing me. The biggest SF con on Earth! Not some sleepy little mellow relaxacon of 750 people in Minneapolis, but 3, 5, 6,000 people from all over the world. Five days of programming: panel discussions… the dealer room --sorry, the huckster room… the costume masquerade… the Hugo Awards banquet… movies all night long… four concurrent TV/Video/Anime tracks…I could stay up for four nights in a row watching episodes of Kimba the White Lion! And the bid parties for future WorldCons – the “Minneapolis in ’73" bid party had been so great that even after they lost out on hosting the ’73 WorldCon, the con committee still held a “Minneapolis in ‘73" party every year. Those parties have become the stuff of legend. I don’t know for sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they're still having them 31 years later. If any Minn-stfers are reading this , you can verify if that grand old tradition continues.

Best of all, it was very likely that I’d meet some of my favorite authors. WorldCons have always been chockablock with writers famous and obscure. Many of the biggest names in SF/Fantasy would be there. Who knows? I might get stuck in an elevator with Isaac Asimov. I might sing a filksong or two with Anne McCaffrey. I might see for myself just how short Harlan Ellison really is. I might get drunk and throw up on Bob Silverberg. The possibilities were spine-tingling.

There was discouraging news from a couple of people I knew who were WorldCon veterans. They said I shouldn’t expect to see the author who was my favorite at that time, R. A. Lafferty. He was never a big name. I discovered him when I read his story Land of the Great Horses in the landmark anthology Dangerous Visions, and quickly snapped up everything of his I could find, which was not a whole lot; a few novels, most notably Past Master and Arrive at Easterwine, and some short story collections such as Nine Hundred Grandmothers (my single favorite Lafferty volume.) He had a stock company of recurring characters, all members of the Institute For Impure Science, which was forever testing some crackpot metaphysical theory or other, or summoning ghosts from out of our collective species-memory … you know, impure science stuff. He used wordplay that was truly strange and surreal. Frequently the things he wrote were laugh out loud hilarious.

Raphael Aloysius Lafferty was a retired electrical engineer who lived in Oklahoma. He hadn’t started writing SF until he was well into his 40s. In 1980 he was in his 60s. A bachelor, a devout Catholic and an alcoholic, he’d also been the caregiver for an invalid brother for several years. Ray had been at some WorldCons and other regional cons in the past, but if he wasn’t on the wagon there would be incidents. He’d have a dozen Cuba Libres and wind up in a shouting match with some unfortunate shnook in the bar. Or, more often, when he was feeling no pain he would start sitting in women’s laps, whether they’d invited him to or not. After several of these episodes, he had stopped coming to the cons altogether. I resigned myself to the fact that I would not be meeting the divine Lafferty now, nor anytime soon. I wouldn’t be giving him a huge hug and telling him how much I loved his work. Oh well. Maybe throwing up on Bob Silverberg would make up for that.

Looking back, I’m ashamed to say I don’t remember much about my fellow travellers on that fabled expedition to the East coast. We were 13 in all; nine men and four women. A few had met before, but most of us were strangers to each other. There was room for seven in a VW Microbus which was instantly christened “The Bozo Bus" (a Firesign Theatre reference.) The remaining six rode in "The Slan Van" thanks to an A.E. Van Vogt fan in our midst. During our 48 hour trek from Minnesota to Massachusetts, people switched vehicles each time we stopped for fast food or bathroom breaks. It helped whoever was driving stay awake if they had fresh conversation partners every couple of hours.

I remember being very thankful that we had a fairly good mix of personalities and philosophies. Most people could chat civilly and intelligently all day and all night about this topic or that, and nobody was blatantly obnoxious or argumentative, altho you could tell some people were prepared for that eventuality. One of the guys had brought an aerosol can of air freshener labelled in big red letters “SMOF-B-GON". (Ten points to the fan who knows what “SMOF" stands for. Or is that too easy? Answer at the end of the post.*) He never used it once on the trip out, altho a week later on the way back to Minnesota with all of us hellishly hungover and close to catatonic, he would periodically spray it in the driver’s ear to jolt him or her awake.

Our fearless leader, the guy who’d organized our little convoy, had reserved a room at the Copley Plaza Hotel, which was not the main con hotel, but conveniently located about two blocks away. He said the room would be plenty big for all 13 of us, which gave me some vague twinges of anxiety, until it turned out that the “room" was actually the Benjamin Franklin Suite, muy swanky indeed, with a bedroom, separate living room, kitchenette and bath. There really was plenty of space for all of us and all of our sleepingbags, if we had ever all been there at the same time. As it was, we spent very little time in the BF Suite. Most of every day and every night we were roaming the halls of the main con hotel, going from track to track; from panel to party; from restaurant to dealer room; crashing in the corner at some party, or in one of the movies shown in the big auditorium between midnight and dawn.


In the next installment: After two nights we get kicked out of the Copley Plaza. Also, a discussion of the definition of the word blog. What is it? An online journal, or a party beverage?

* SMOF = Secret Master Of Fandom. A boor; a conversation-monopolizing creep; an obnoxious individual ; the self-appointed repository of all knowledge concerning everything fannish since the dawn of time; to be avoided at all costs.

This post may also be read here.

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