PLATEN STORIES (3)

Mexicon Jigsaw

All you need do to win one of a galaxy of colossal star prizes is to rearrange these pieces in order, so that they form a coherent picture of Mexicon 2. Winning entries will be judged by their closeness to the definitive version, as unanimously decided by a hand-picked panel of Michael Ashley, Joy Hibbert and Ken Lake. First prize: a copy of the next This Never Happens [the fanzine where this piece first appeared], to be read during a luxurious weekend for one in the privacy of your own bathroom. Second prize: two, er, shop-soiled jokes from old Langford fanzines. The editors' indecision is final.

1.

This is like Nick Lowe's brain-rupturing challenges of SF ability to improvise in extremis. "You are on a Saturday panel beginning shortly after dawn. Having been instructed that Neil Gaiman is chairing it, you have made no notes whatever about Science Fiction's Stupid Ideas. Little do you know that Neil, David Garnett and William Gibson have been told Dave Langford is in the chair! A microphone is thrust in your direction. As the convention hall slowly spins before you and turns black, all you can remember is an old cartoon of a banquet seating plan. TOP TABLE. SEA OF HOSTILE FACES ..."

2.

Nobody ever explains why the con's overall symbol is a not particularly Mexican cuttlefish. Why is a cuttlefish like written SF?

(a) Both have a surface fishiness and a hard core.

(b) Cuttlefish like fresh water the way SF hacks like the mainstream.

(c) Tentacles are a vital part of their iconography.

(d) Whether thrust between the bars or lining the floor, both are used in budgie's cages.

3.

Interesting Mexicon diseases: John Clute's cold, in keeping with the dominant ideology, becomes everyone's cold but especially mine. Wandering gastric 'flu interrupts the course of true love as Dave Bridges and Linda Blanchard (United At Last!) alternate their days of groaning on a hotel bed of pain. Hazel traces her morning desiccation to heating pipes cunningly placed to send a deadly all-night sirocco up her nose. Martin Hoare has hurt his knee and never makes it to Birmingham at all: rumours escalate round the con until a Novacon ex-chairman who shall be nameless asks, "Is it true about Martin coming home blind drunk and falling over Katie and breaking both his legs?" (Martin, unknown to us all, lies in the Royal Berks Hospital with Warfarin anticoagulant trickling through his veins. By the time we visit him, even he is bored with jokes about rats and clots.) On Sunday the hotel helps fans appreciate the joys of hypothermia by its witty old Novacon trick of turning off the heating. We leave early, in a haze of germs: the 1815 to Reading is later dubbed the Plague Train and for days is decontaminated in shifts by biowar experts from British Rail Travellers' Fare.

4.

Greg Pickersgill, "fandom's answer to Sotheby's", has a fanzine auction technique all his own. Flogging good stuff bores him: "Some issues of Mainstream here." Audience, excited: "Which ones, which ones?" Tossing the potential complication aside, Greg seizes on a run of Pete Presford fanzines. "Now this is a truly amazing example of how to produce a highly ambitious magazine of fanwriting, fiction, and poetry ... very badly. You would not believe the heights of ineptitude scaled by Presford in this sustained, matchless performance which may be unique in fandom as we know it," etc. etc. Nobody buys them.

5.

Euphemisms of Mexicon. When a fan is inclined a few ethereal degrees from the true vertical, and tends to stare happily past your left ear at the coruscating lights of infinity (we do not mention Phil Palmer, we do not mention Bill Gibson), the full and unanswerable response to your curiously raised eyebrow is, "I've ... been in ... Ted White's room."

Ted White spends a lot of time in Ted White's room.

6.

This can't be happening. I stopped entering quizzes years ago. "Brain of Mexicon", indeed. The luckless finalists (Davies, Edwards, Headlong, Illingworth, Langford, Mullan, Scott, Wareham) huddle in the con-hall doorway and say rude things about Kevin Williams. Kev's semi-impossible qualifying test involves spotting hordes of SF lines (several of them not from Jack Vance stories) assembled into a patchwork of plagiarism. All the most hauntingly elusive phrases prove to be spurious Williams insertions -- bits of literary Polyfilla. There is no justice.

7.

Chris Priest looks a little strained. Leigh Kennedy looks a little strained. For only the second time in recent memory, Leigh (live-in client of the mighty Priest literary agency) is in the same room as Lisa Tuttle.

Man-mountain book dealer Jim Goddard, who's lately switched his hair-dye colour to black, injects good cheer: "Gosh Chris, I think Leigh's really wonderful."

"Er, that's nice, Jim."

"No, I mean really wonderful, really."

"Er, yes Jim."

"No, really, I really mean ..."

What does he really mean?

8.

"Er," I say compellingly, everyone having utterly run out of words some 45 seconds into the panel. "Er, you can get things you might call 'stupid ideas' even in rather good books." In an feeble attempt at controversy I quibble with the description of lethal computer programs in chapter three of Count Zero. (If it takes sixteen countem sixteen seconds for the dreaded "black ice" to "eat into your nervous system" and stop your heart, a simple dead-man switch would presumably offer complete protection.) A savage argument fails to develop. "Uh," ripostes the master of cyberpunk, and we all remember from our SF reading that "Uh" is American for "Er". "Uh, I never thought of that ... don't know how I'd get round that ..." He sinks into a tortured, forty-minute reverie.

I feel extremely guilty and reprehensible.

Afterwards, Bill heads rapidly for Ted White's room.

9.

Very late Saturday night, Geoff Ryman and Rachel Pollack announce their life-enhancing Celibacy Training Programme. Their strength is as the strength of ten because their parts are pure. Fans try hard to repeat such catchy slogans as "Celibacy Liberates" twenty times in quick succession. After several pints of resolute refusal to contemplate all this, I decide there are things with which I was not meant to stop meddling.

10.

Behind me I overhear a low, insinuating whisper. "A hundred and fifteen thousand words!"

John Clute is dribbling slightly, caught as though by the gaze of a cobra. Chris Priest leans closer: "And don't forget the thesaurus." A shiver of potent emotion passes through JC's coryza-racked frame. He is a man visibly weakening.

This is complicated. The week before, Chris and I accidentally became dealers for an exceedingly expensive word processor. We wanted to play with it: by careful misdirection we steered the saleswoman away from the realization that we were mere authors. Authors pay £425 a go, plus VAT. Dealers get shop demonstration copies for a nominal sum. Nudge, nudge.

Chris now hopes to make a few bob by actually being a dealer, unerringly picking a logophile victim whose weak spot is the built-in thesaurus and spelling-check dictionary. "A hundred and fifteen thousand words ..."

From Clute, a low and lustful moan.

11.

I find Hazel in a corridor, looking fraught. "Roz Kaveney has just spent half an hour telling me all about her emotional problems with her teenage masochist girlfriend. She makes me feel horribly boringly normal. I can't cope...."

Perhaps there is something in celibacy after all, for other people.

12.

In a searing poll whose results I largely forget, the Nigel Richardson Award for the fan one would most like to see in mini-skirt and suspenders goes by a landslide to slinky, sensuous Ashley Watkins, with runners-up Nigel Richardson, Geoff Ryman and Joy Hibbert.

(True Confession: actually I've never fathomed why fishnet stockings and suspenders are supposed to be sexy. Some hangover from days when any legwear less redoubtable than a half-inch barrier of woolly barbed wire automatically spelt wantonness?)

The lady who actually is wearing the prescribed get-up proves to be one of the group of Hitch-Hiker fans ... "towellies", as Alex Stewart enthusiastically calls them in a fan panel, with sundry comments like "If it wasn't for you lot this con would be at the Strathallan Hotel!" (Mexicon 2 has been relocated from the Strathallan for confused reasons, following a Hitcher convention.) Waves of spontaneous towelled indignation erupt from the audience. The debacle is as usual handled by G.Pickersgill, his personality in no way attenuated by being at the back of the hall without a microphone.

As the panel fizzles, Alex fades hastily away to the bar. There, ashen-faced and trembling, he is heard to say "Of course that was just a ploy, you know, to liven up the discussion...."

13.

Great moments in Mexicon food. Friday night: Hazel and I feel like (a) being alone; (b) not venturing into blizzard-ridden Birmingham. We madly escape into the expensive hotel restaurant, leaving a thwarted Arnold Akien to the horrors of cheap convention snacks resembling special effects from a splatter movie. Saturday: same feeling, same procedure, but Arnold has spent the day arranging a second mortgage and tags along. I tuck into a succulent piece of dripping red, rare Carvery meat. I don't think you're supposed to cook pork like this. Sunday: the convention lunch is the Living Slime That Ate Manhattan, on rice. Fans trained in forensic analysis deduce this delicacy to contain flour, water, and red and green bits, but are unsuccessful in isolating a taste. Memo: living for a day on soup and alcohol is a less successful cold treatment than I hoped.

14.

On the grubby projection screen, a second piece of jigsaw is revealed, showing ... a tiny arc of what could well be a bald head. The previous wisp of revealed truth, in the bottom left corner, resembles cobwebbed coconut matting. This is another Kev Williams labyrinth to baffle the Mexicon Brains of us experimental rats: an identification quiz. Which famous SF personality is bald and looks like a coconut?

Well, you get three chances. "Damon Knight?"

"Bloody hell," cry feared foes Edwards, Headlong and Illingworth, discovering too late that the first lucky guess has just eliminated half the competitors including them.

I don't remember much more beyond the fiendish Williams's cunning jigsaw of some white-haired person who appears to have a heavy five o'clock shadow. "Um ... Keith Roberts?"

It is Kate Wilhelm.

Nevertheless I am forcibly draped in a poncho saying BRAIN OF MEXICON 2. Sue Hepple, creator of this high-class garment, follows me around watchfully to make sure I don't take it off. Somehow I end on the fan room floor with the added glory of a silly Mexican sombrero. Linda Pickersgill says things to me. I fail to hear them. Everyone (i.e. Lilian Edwards) asks what my hands are doing underneath the poncho. Fans are not as original as one might wish.

All evening, I nervously avoid Keith Roberts.

15.

Best one-liner from the con newsletter Cactus Times, tucked away in a LOST AND FOUND column: "In the small hours of this morning, The Grand Hotel, Birmingham; please return to Toby Roxburgh."

16.

The Harveys are chatting amiably about Lee Montgomerie.

John: "She used to go up to London for the weekend and come back pregnant occasionally."

Eve: "We never did find out who was the father of her child."

John: "Did she?"

Clearly this is the ugly face of Café Society Fandom. How glad I am to inhabit the austere and unscandalous world of Ansible address lists. Let's see, D. West (though not Ann) has moved to Keighley, Dave Bridges is moving to Texas, Maureen Porter is moving to Folkestone....

17.

Of course, as soon as we left it all started to happen. A final forum for complaints led to great bayings and ululations from one Alison Macdonald (who she?), complaining that the Brain of Mexicon quiz had been foully rigged and slanted so it could only be won by the sort of low person who had in fact won it. Gregory, speaking for the defence, made uncharacteristic use of tact.

Nor we were there when Abi Frost, star of (inter alia) the disco floor and Cactus Times, became very excitable in the bar and in succession asked approximately 85% of chaps at the convention if they would undress her. D.West obliged, though only to the waist. My informant didn't say from which end.

Nor did I witness the salutary incident, sworn to by Dave Wood, in which D. and Hazel Ashworth lovingly turned Joseph upside down (only for Judith to very properly rescue him and lead him away).

On Tuesday we saw the visiting Seattle contingent, Jerry Kaufman and Suzle, who earlier had looked a bit subdued.

"So what did you like best?"

"Definitely Sunday night! That was when it really started living up to the stories we'd heard about British cons!"

The moment my back is turned....


DAVINA LANGFORD'S SOCIETY PAGE

On Saturday, February 17th, I was privileged to glimpse the Season's most glittering event, as suave and aspen-like Dr Rob Jackson displayed his bedside manner at the altar, with many a quip to his bride Coral of "You're used to this, what do I do now?" As best man, the much-spoken-of Ian Maule manfully submerged his personality and made Rob seem almost vibrant by contrast.

A select coterie of the couple's happy friends had gathered beforehand in the exclusive Railway Tavern, where Greg Pickersgill's elegant ensemble -- a Clerical Officer's full-dress uniform, all the vogue just now -- caused heads to turn. Many were the sparkling aphorisms which flashed to and fro as in glass after glass of vintage beer the couple's health was ignored; "Bloody hell, there's no time for another," was but one of the witty mots which came to my ear. There followed a delightful alfresco run to the church of St Freud, where noted dandy-about-town Kevin Smith, ACA (exquisitely clad in his celebrated three-piece suite) greeted one and all with the heart-warming words, "Nyaah nyaah, you're late."

It was the work of mere minutes for we newcomers to trip over the pews and begin miming to the hymn already in progress; at the altar, a radiant sight, we saw the back of the bridegroom's head. On his left stood sought-after Coral, divinely draped in an apiarist's outfit; lending support on the right was the best man Whatsisname, whose ensemble we instinctively forget. As the shackles were firmly attached, Kevin amused spectators with his naughty observation that of the guests crammed in the rearmost pews, only he and perfectly-formed Ian Williams were neither divorced nor living in sin!

The ceremony over, it was discovered that weather was occurring outside the church; and so wedding photographs were taken under conditions of exciting intimacy in a nearby cupboard. After this, the party adjourned to a reception at the glittering Hotel Antoinette. And I use the word "glittering" in its literal sense, for on every side the light sparkled from such valuables as Little Ian's contact lenses (wags remarked that with their aid, the petit author was glassy-eyed several minutes sooner than normal) and Peter Weston's scintillant, 300-carat teeth. The teeming throng -- many, like distinguished lady editor Simone Walsh, fetchingly attired in clothes -- sat down to a magnificent gourmet snack comprising the traditional rustic fare of Rob's native Newcastle, curry. The coruscating speeches were replete with well-tried jests, like the information that our bridegroom's mother thought fans innocuous, having met Ian Maule! Afterwards, toasts and many of the guests were drunk.

The radiant couple having left for an unknown destination upstairs at 8 Lavender Road, West Ewell, revellers adjourned to select dinner-parties in such prestigious venues as The New Malden Curry House. Further celebrations took place at the best man's smart London residence, one particularly welcome guest being The Glenfiddich of That Ilk, whose acquaintance I made at length while naughty Peter Weston hinted at the wicked secrets of his rejection slips. The hours flew by like mere hours; friends of the couple such as Greg and Harry Bell became more and more overcome by this emotional occasion. A little bird has whispered in my ear that Harry was dreadfully beset with inner turmoil later in the evening (another rumour is that Simone is thinking of buying a new carpet): but by this time I was seeking fresh Society scandal on the chic, crowded floor of a taxi swerving about the popular M4 under the control of masterful Liese Hoare, wife of the lovely and unconscious Martin.

Only a week later came the resplendent birthday celebration given by famed hostesses Kath Mitchell and Leroy Kettle in their luxury basement. Never, since the death of Queen Victoria.... [1979]


A Load of Crystal Balls:
Great Failures of Prediction, AD 2000-3000

CROESO I CYBERPWNC: Our most recent holiday looks set to inspire several metafictions about shifting perception. When you visit Snowdonia with Martin and Katie Hoare, the surface reality of mountains and sheep begins slowly to fade, revealing instead the hidden webs of realalespace. Yes, the flickering lines of communication pulsing beneath our society follow high-tech networks constrained only by the shortest routes between pub and pub. The hell with Gibson and Sterling: realalepunk SF is going to be the cutting edge of the future, portraying as it does the deadly interface between humankind and chemical transcendence. I have seen the future and it hic! [1986]


THE LEEDS SCHOOL OF CHARM: At Conception I overheard a Great Fannish Line which in olden days would have made the back cover of Hyphen, and even now might earn a brief footnote in the Chuch Harris Seduction Manual, Vol. XLII. Gallantry, you will learn, is not dead:

The scene is a late, late room party. Lilian Edwards reclines on the bed, shoes off, feet sensuously clad in sheer green stockings (or tights or something; I pursued my researches only so far -- and stop drooling, Harris). Our host, Simon Ounsley, fondles the nearer of said feet. A romantic light gleams in his eyes as the Good Line lurches to mind.... "Gosh, it's just like a green Durex, isn't it?"

I don't think I'll try this one on Hazel. It's all yours. Let me know how you get on. [1987]


HOW TO WRITE FOR PAPERBACK INFERNO: The art of reviewing for Joseph Nicholas's fanzine involves more than denunciation of the vast Asimov / Heinlein / Del Rey / Hugos / SFWA / L5 / USA conspiracy, more than the scattering of subordinate clauses the way other people use vowels, more than mastery of the two-page paragraph and the transfinite parenthesis. The true Inferno hack learns to think long and hard about every word, just as Delany ponders for ten hours before each use of "the" in case its meaning has altered in the science-fictional context. Let me give an example from my own copious -- though largely empty -- notebooks.

Once upon a time I wanted to say of a book that the totally implausible ending came like a rabbit out of a hat: to make it sound posh I tossed off something about a deus ex machina. Actually the writer was so inept that he had to pull three rabbits out of hats, and I altered my sentence to read "about three deus ex machinas". The creative process had begun, the subtle honing and refinement which would produce a perfect Paperback Inferno review. Mere hours later, returning from the pub with many pints of bitter secreted about my person, I realized I'd been too rash, too hasty: I nipped upstairs and scribbled deuses ex machina. In the morning it was the work of a moment to forget still more of my O-level Latin and alter this to dei ex machina, and in the evening it was the work of another moment for my Linguistics Expert to drop her knitting, have a brief fit of hysterics, and polish the phrase to its penultimate form: di ex machina.

My sentence now trembled on the brink of perfection, but only the Paperback Inferno editor could add that final touch of genius. Only the Paperback Inferno editor could reject my and Hazel's fumblings for the empty, worthless stuff that they were, and with a stroke of his vermilion pencil achieve the ultimate... deus ex machinae. [1980]


PHILOSOPHICAL GAS: Our local remainder shop tempted me with a hard-to-resist book called Smut which came in a suspiciously plain wrapper despite being by "one of Germany's foremost literary figures". (Let me confess that the name Enzensberger had not until then been constantly on the tip of my tongue.) I had a furtive look inside and read, "There are twenty-five forms of excretion known to man." For several minutes, the obstruction to traffic which we call Langford stared vacantly through page one and into infinity, counting. Was the guy serious? The usual offices, one, two... onions, three... nasty things in the hearing aid, four... nasal digit insertion, five... technicolour yawns, six... ptui, seven... 1% inspiration and 99% eight... don't squeeze it, nine... "My God, I forgot that," I ejaculated, making ten. But already we're wandering a good way off the dictionary definition of excretion. Dandruff? The nameless accumulations of the navel? The all-dreaded windy spasms? Does a cut finger count? And do my famous convention nosebleeds count separately? And when Herr Smut says Man does he include Woman, in which case...?

Pausing in these edifying thoughts, I turned the page and was informed that "Man's twenty-sixth excretion is himself." Bloody hell. All that meaningful stream of consciousness wasted on a mere pseud.

Man's twenty-sixth excretion is fanzines. [1986]

The End