Thirty Years On

A minor anniversary was widely ignored in August 2009, chiefly because I'd forgotten all about it. On 23 August 1979, Seacon '79 began – the first Worldcon in Brighton – and I distributed the first issue of Ansible. Or maybe the real anniversary was the 20th of that month, when according to the infallible list (still preserved in a grubby old ring-binder) I ran off 250 copies on the mighty electric Roneo duplicator that dominated my office in those days.

Can it really be thirty years? Not strictly, because there was an embarrassing gap from 1987 to 1991. This had its origins in the hassle of a lithographed print run that then ran to well over six hundred copies, plus mild trauma (the Soggy Scientologist Incident) at the second Brighton Worldcon, and was fuelled by my growing laziness into a veritable blaze of apathy. Even by 1987 the technology had changed, with a succession of Sperry-Remington and IBM Selectric golfball typewriters giving way to a word processor for Ansible 42 in March 1985. As a foreshadowing of horrors to come, this MS-DOS "SuperWriter" software wouldn't print in two columns and I found myself compelled to spend hours and hours writing an add-on program that would achieve this. Chris Priest and I then marketed it to the general public. "This amazing package will enable you to, er, publish Ansible!"

For the comeback issue, Ansible 51 (October 1991), the rackety old daisywheel was replaced by a laser printer and SuperWriter by WordPerfect 5.1 with an add-on font kit from Bitstream. Technogeek friends are reliably convulsed with horror and disbelief on learning that Ansible is still produced with the identical software. But lots of other programs have joined the fractal nightmare over the years, since – just for a start – each new print edition needs to spawn the plain-text conversion for email, CIX and Usenet, and HTML for the website.

When I was bashing out Ansible with low-tech gear and assembling it with an incredibly dangerous electric stapler known as Fang, the eternal grumble was that production took up too much time. In the modern, streamlined electronic era, I can confirm that Ansible and its cyberspace spinoffs take up far too much time.

Cynical Langford-watchers may now be expecting a repeat of my exposition "The Secret History of Ansible" (Science-Fiction Five-Yearly 11), but I'll let you off with a footnote. [1] The present article is more an awful warning – delivered in croaking tones by the haggard, emaciated victim – of the traditional fannish terrors of Creeping Perfectionism and Bigger-And-Better Syndrome in the online arena.

It started with a couple of WordPerfect macros that have grown increasingly labyrinthine over the decades: one called STROSS, hinting at which cutting-edge technofan first asked for the plain text of each Ansible to post on Usenet, and – just as soon as I'd been offered some web space [2] – another unoriginally called HTML, to churn out the web edition. [3]

That would have been a good place to settle into a nice relaxed routine, but the next illogical step was of course to add the first series of Ansible (issues 1-50) to the website. The final nine were easy, being already on disk and needing only laborious conversion. Fan volunteers rekeyed the rest, and by September 1997 all the back issues were flaunted online as plain text files. But, I nigglingly felt, they weren't flaunted enough. In 1999, pausing only to write some specialist software to speed the task (or, when you counted the time taken to debug my home-made application, to slow it down considerably), I bodged them all into proper HTML documents and hastily scanned the artwork. [4] Late in 2008, realizing that the 1999 software used to reduce the images to a suitable size was really rather crap – too many jaggy and faded-out lines – I redid it all with my newest scanner and favourite image-tweaking program. [5]

Other archive projects came remorselessly to mind, like Jorge Luis Borges's mesmerizing concepts that you can't not think about. For example, I often consulted and quoted Peter Roberts's 1970s UK fan newsletter Checkpoint. This was the onlie begetter of Ansible: Peter decided in 1979 that 100 issues were quite enough, firmly handed me his subscription list and conveyed that UK fannish newsmongering was now my problem. Eventually it seemed a good idea to put Checkpoint online, and fan volunteers were again summoned. Special credit here goes to Peter Sullivan, who personally dealt with 36 and a bit issues. I obsessively formatted and tidied the results, and by 2007 there was a complete, searchable Checkpoint archive. [6] Gosh wow.

I am grateful, ever so grateful, that others stepped in to deal with even older British fan newsletters, and spared me the possibility of a further hideous time-sink. Greg Pickersgill masterminded the archive project for Ron Bennett's "really quite legendary newszine" Skyrack (1959-1971) [7] and Rob Hansen dealt single-handed with J. Michael Rosenblum's Futurian War Digest (1940-1945). [8] When I contemplate all the heroic work expended on these fanhistorical resources, and the perhaps as many as a dozen fans who seem even vaguely interested in the results, I can get quite ironic. Or maybe I'm just channelling Greg there.

One damned archive leads to another. In my copious spare time, or rather to avoid the possibility of having spare time, I made up a website for my and Kevin Smith's Drilkjis, now to mention my own Twll-Ddu and Cloud Chamber. [9] When Abigail Frost died in 2009, the idea of putting a few of her better fan articles online (conceived mainly to cheer up a desolated Roz Kaveney) grew unexpectedly as fans far and wide sent scans, to become a quite extensive Abi Archive in its own right. [10]

Then there are the smartarse PHP scripts on the Ansible site that automatically serve up the latest issue, or provide a random dip into Thog's Masterclass, an SF Quote of the Moment, or a slide-show of masthead cartoons from 1979 to the present day ... and grandiose schemes like indexing all the Ansible convention coverage (and then Checkpoint's, and then Skyrack's) ... or the truly remarkable notion which this margin is too small to contain ... [11] Then, of course, we have the recurring joy of routine site updates. According to the upload logs – which I never thought to subject to counting software until just now – the main Ansible page with the links and British Isles convention listing has in the last year been updated exactly 400 times. Gulp.

The Plain People of Fandom: Why not delegate the routine work to more hapless volunteers?

Myself: Argh! Anathema! A control freak never delegates!

Actually I wouldn't mind some help with updates to the overseas convention list [12], which was guiltily instituted because Bridget Wilkinson still hasn't managed to revive her Fans Across the World newsletter. The chore of maintaining this page pulsates with desperate fun as you visit and revisit old con websites that variously conceal the date, obfuscate the venue, blot out all useful information in a welter of blog posts about minor local events, or become superseded with no indication of this fact and no link to the new site. (Special Thog marks go to the US "Convivial", whose third instance in 2008 had its website in subdirectory /convivial3, leading me to miss the 2009 event altogether because I was checking for /convivial4 and they'd put it in /convivial. Foolish Earthling, your puny terrestrial "logic" is of no avail!)

If only I could focus my Cosmic Mind and get back to simply publishing a fanzine ... Meanwhile, cheer up my hearties, and let's drink to thirty years of madness.

The Footnotes