Once in a while, being even slightly notorious in the SF world brings unexpected treats. This is how, while Britain suffered disastrous floods and collapsed railways in November, I was sitting by a swimming-pool in Florida, surrounded by palm trees, basking in tropical sunshine and slurping pina coladas. Particularly heartwarming was the thought that someone else was paying.
Yes, it was another SF convention gig – being guest speaker at Florida's annual Tropicon, held in a bright pink hotel on Hollywood Beach. People kept babbling about some local election in America, but the details were so bizarre that this was obviously just the plot of Bruce Sterling's next OTT political SF novel.
At Tropicon, I was particularly nervous of meeting regular attendee Hal Clement, who's been publishing hard-science SF since 1942 and is still at it. It wasn't so much that his novels impressed the infant Langford, as that I'd said so at embarrassing length in an introduction to his new omnibus, Variations on a Theme by Sir Isaac Newton from NESFA Press (plug).
Fortunately, Hal Clement is a nice man and diplomatic enough to survive even the most inept compliments. But local author Adam-Troy Castro seemed to expect friction between us, and published a 'Dave Langford meets Hal Clement' cartoon in the convention programme book, consisting of a space scene from 2001. 'Open the pod bay door, Hal!' 'I'm sorry, I can't do that, Dave ...' Mr Castro has a twisted mind.
The usual convention things happened, panels and speeches and charity auctions. For the latter, I'd brought a priceless item of fan memorabilia sent from Ireland – a bottle of special beer brewed for the first presentation (in 2000) of the James White memorial award for short SF. The label design commemorated James's galactic hospital Sector General, with a colourful logo of a spaceship with serpents twined around it. Bidding ran high.
Meanwhile, Tropicon chairman Joe Siclari chortled "We like to work our guests hard," as – not content with three Langford speeches and a panel appearance – he put me down for another talk to replace some cancelled item. Luckily I'd brought my collection of strange SF quotes, and inflicted them all on cringing audiences. When forced to give after-dinner speeched, I like to nauseate fans with grim SF extracts about food and its aftermath, as in J.M.H. Lovegrove's The Krilov Continuum: "Out came the contents of his stomach in a heaving, gelatinous rush – the mixed grill he had eaten for breakfast at the hotel, the sandwich and the can of 7-Up he had had for lunch ..." The thing about cans of 7-Up is that you should peel them before eating.
"That was revolting," said Joe afterwards. "We thought Vernor Vinge was going to explode." Yes, the guests included awesome Vernor Vinge of A Deepness in the Sky fame. (Also artist David Cherry, brother of C.J. Cherryh – whose name didn't have that final H until her publishers inserted it to make her sound more exotic and alien.) I would have been terrified of Vinge, but he got ever so merry and voluble at Tropicon's lavish parties, and on the morning after was queasily grateful for a dip into my tin of Original Celebrated Curiously Strong Mints.
Chairman Joe also dragged Tropicon guests around local cultural attractions. Within the hallowed walls of the International Museum of Cartoon Art, I found a perfectly preserved Neil Gaiman – well, one of his scripts. Infinitely more terrifying was the wildlife of "Parrot Jungle": I'm praying the SFX art department never sees the resulting photo of Langford being a perch for five gigantic parrots.
Then there was the really science-fictional excursion by airboat (flat-bottomed, driven by gigantic aero-engine propellors) into the depths of the Everglades swamp to confront wild alligators. You start counting your limbs cautiously when, enticed by a reckless airboat captain, these carnivorous monsters swim up far too close and accept tasty morsels with a great echoing CHOMP of jaws. Another surprise was that those morsels were plain white bread. Maybe they feed the 'gators a small tourist every month or so, to keep their interest up?
Vinge, nervously: "Alligators are of course vegetarians."
Langford: "They just need all those teeth to crunch the stout tubers on which they subsist ..."
So watch out for menacing alien alligators in the next Vernor Vinge SF epic, and in some Langford column too. Probably this one. Elections aside, Florida was wonderful.
David Langford wishes he was still there.