Real Life

I missed my chance years ago. I had a day alone in New York before a New England SF convention appearance, and took a long walk from Battery Park at the tip of Manhattan, as far as I could make it up Broadway and Fifth Avenue. Soon the World Trade Centre towers loomed. Worth a diversion? No, I was scheduled for lunch with friendly publishers Tor Books three miles further on, and kept going.

As Douglas Adams would have said, that was my Last Chance To See.

Writing a week after the towers fell, there seems nothing more to say – but it was strange and terrifying to see it all unfold through Usenet rec.arts.sf.fandom, the SF fan community newsgroup where (they say a little jokily) only SF itself is off-topic.

New York was so stunned that the first r.a.sf.f posting to reach me was from watchful Phil Chee in Malaysia, urging everyone to turn on the TV. The moment I did, a toy plane smashed through a toy WTC tower, as unconvincing as any model Tokyo being stomped by Godzilla. Please, please, let this be a special effect. But of course it wasn't.

Shortly the rollcall began, with SF people in Manhattan reporting that they'd come through alive. Ellen Datlow, fiction editor at SCIFI.COM, was first to send me e-mail. "I'm ok. People are in the street in my neighborhood watching the two towers burn." Next came Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden, the Tor Books editors who keep treating me to lunch, bless them, although I keep failing to write them a novel.

Names kept trickling in. Fan commuters from other boroughs were camped in friends' apartments, trapped when Manhattan was sealed off. Author Mike Shunn built a website at where SF people could check in and confirm they'd survived. Thousands from outside SF circles added their names, until excess traffic made the ISP pull the plug. This textbook example of a too-successful website was replaced by pointers to other lists, but not before a British fan actually working in the WTC (Henry Balen) had reported in, shocked but unhurt. We'd been worrying.

The SF fan network is huge. So many people that it seemed impossible we wouldn't lose a friend ... but for us, the luck seemed to hold. Until writers and fans with relatives lost in the WTC or Pentagon came through with their personal bad news.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden, pondering in r.a.sf.f on the millions of highly confidential documents then blowing on the smoke-choked winds of lower Manhattan, reckoned that this was like living in a Ken MacLeod novel. Straightaway Ken MacLeod replied with his own different sense that it felt like being in someone else's novel. A Jack Womack dystopia, maybe.

Charred paper was falling far and wide, and in one of those bizarre moments you could never credibly put into fiction, the page from a book that floated down into Teresa Nielsen Hayden's hand was from Jack Higgins's A Season in Hell. Who would dare make that up?

The stories went on, with SF fans realizing that the shape of SF had changed forever. A horrible new landmark was punched into history, like the almost cartoon-like outline left by that second plane the instant after hitting the South Tower. How many SF novels in print, or still going through the presses, refer to mutated future New Yorks where the WTC towers are an enduring tourist attraction? Obsolete now, all of them, ludicrously dated, sad records of the road not taken. Unless they rebuild those enormous sitting targets.

SF nightmares were remembered too. When hundreds of firefighters and police died in one tower's collapse, it recalled the double bomb in Samuel Delany's Babel-17, which smashes buildings and later explodes again with greater force to destroy rescue teams. From TV there was that X-Files spinoff The Lone Gunman, with its US government plot to crash a commercial jet into the WTC and blame it on terrorists ...

Very soon, the Spider-Man movie trailer featuring a web between the WTC towers was pulled from circulation. I thought of scenes from that famous graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, where Gotham City's "beautiful twin towers" are threatened with demolition bombs by the villainous Two-Face. But Batman sorted that one out. New York needed him on 11 September.

David Langford is still struggling to concoct amusing Discworld quizbook questions. Ha bloody ha.