Cautionary Tales

Whenever I modestly announce that I've been a guest of honour at another American sf convention, friends respond with appreciative snarls of, "You jammy bastard!" Little do they know how disaster-prone these excursions are.

This time it was an interminable journey to Portland, Oregon, home of the subtly named convention OryCon – which despite suffering a 1989 Langford guest appearance had asked me back for the 20th anniversary event, late in 1998. Also guesting were Lois McMaster Bujold and that legendary star of Fortean TV, Lionel "Vicar In Leathers" Fanthorpe.

Disasters began early on my BA flight, where painful study of Stephen Donaldson's new collection (to be reviewed in-flight on a Psion palmtop) was interrupted by an aged, turbaned reprobate in the window seat. I was worried by the countless whiskies he'd absorbed, and peeved that he also stole and swigged the bottle of wine accompanying my dinner. Eventually, as if desperate for the loo, he hurled himself by instalments towards me, collapsed on my own seat as I leapt out of the way, and never apparently moved again. Sympathetic crew members explained that the old guy had had a terrible liquid accident on his seat, followed by another on mine. For several tense minutes it looked as though I'd have to stand up all the way to the US West Coast.

Between the welcoming committee at the airport and Orycon itself, bad things happened to my credit card. First, Portland sf specialists Wrigley-Cross Books dangled rare first editions in front of me, and I was helpless to resist. Then, seconds before the convention began, I sampled the science-fictional delights of Vietnamese spicy chicken and broke a tooth on a water chestnut. This led to a joyful holiday tour of emergency root-canal work, beginning with a quintessentially American moment as the dentist discreetly left the room while his gorgeous receptionist bent over me to explain, in low and thrilling tones, just how much the next couple of hours were going to cost.

OryCon's opening ceremony took the form of a David Copperfield-style magic show as "The Fabulous David Copperdini" materialized the guests of honour from thin air using such intricate stage-magical devices as a curtain and a cardboard box. Alas, Lionel Fanthorpe failed to be conjured up. He'd been called away for TV filming in, of all places, Turkey, and it was left to me to cover for his absence by telling the Fanthorpe Lightbulb Joke. This homage to the multi-pen-named master of outrageously padded sf begins:

"How many Fanthorpe pseudonyms does it take to change a lightbulb, to replace it, to reinstate it, to substitute for it, to swap, exchange, renew, supersede or supplant it, to provide a proxy, to put another in its stead ...?" (Exit Langford, pursued by a thesaurus.)

Readings from classic Fanthorpe sf novels are more or less compulsory at OryCon, where Lionel is a cult hero. To quote one of the very shortest extracts which I was dragooned into declaiming to a spellbound audience: "Any slight mechanical defalcation, if I may put it that way, and we're dead. We become twenty-four bloated corpses, sailing forever in a big steel coffin, a communal tomb, a jet propelled mass grave." Conventions can feel a bit that way, especially when you're recovering from dental agonies while beginning to come down with an ear infection and a severe cold. Who'd be a science fiction writer?

Nevertheless the show must go on, and thanks to supreme will-power helped by a heady cocktail of pain-killers, decongestants and single malt, I survived being interviewed (though not, as originally planned, by Lionel), signing heaps of books (plus one battered copy of SFX which had found its way to Oregon), undergoing a severe public grilling on the eccentricities of the Fantasy Encyclopedia ("Why is there no entry for Lester Del Rey?" "An excellent question, and one which I can best answer by – gosh, is THAT the time?"), presenting the Live Thog's Masterclass hour (don't ask), and attending gruelling all-night parties.

OryCon hospitality is a wonderful thing – they even give you a free box of local smoked salmon to take home. But when your time comes to be an sf guest of honour, allow at least a week to recover from jetlag and con-related diseases. Even now I'm coughing up Lovecraftian abominations all over my computer. Disinfect this page before reading it.

Plug, plug: Wrigley-Cross are at and OryCon is at ...