Critical Mass

One of the few perks of hacking out your living in the wonderful world of science fiction is that, if you plug away long enough, you'll sooner or later get an invitation to be guest of honour at an sf convention. As I write, I'm just recovering from one of my rare expenses-paid trips as the guest of American conventions, and am feeling a vast benevolence towards the whole USA. Well, except for the late L. Ron Hubbard.

This year's excursion was to the subtly named Minicon in Minneapolis, where they certainly do foreign guests proud. I knew they'd cover the air tickets and hotel bill, but was unprepared for having wads of dollars thrust into my hand in accurate anticipation of frequent Langfordian visits to the bar. As I gaped at my penthouse room and the huge stash of bottled beer placed there in case I got thirsty in the night, hotel flunkeys arrived to instal a special phone amplifier so I could call home: Minicon had even researched my notorious deafness.

Another thing I hadn't expected was the sheer scale of the event. British national conventions are regarded as getting a bit crowded when more than 1,000 fans turn up. Minicon, ostensibly a small regional affair, pulled in 3,350 people despite being in an official state of trying to slim down and ease the organizational workload. (You can imagine the policy meeting: "Hey, I know how to make them stay away in droves. There's this guy we could ask as guest, called Langford ...")

Comfortingly, parts of the organization displayed the same genial shambles familiar from British cons. Past experience of US multi-track programming had readied me for the discovery that my first appearance, at a quiet time of the Friday afternoon, was scheduled against fifteen other people performing in seven rival attractions. But it grew a bit alarming when I realized that while Minicon was happening in Minneapolis's whopping Radisson South hotel, my talk was in another hotel called the Sofitel which didn't appear on the convention's Pocket Guide maps ... and that I was the only item in the Sofitel all day, not to mention the only one scheduled for its Fontainebleu Room throughout the whole convention. This distant, subterranean location did not exactly have a sign on the door saying BEWARE OF THE LEOPARD, but it came close. I admired the orienteering abilities of the dozen or so Minicon members who tracked me down and (bless them) laughed in most of the right places.

But it would be typically British miserabilism to go on about this kind of thing, when the weekend was more of a colossal party shimmering with the magic radiance known to US fans as "Minnesota Nice". The hospitality suite dispensed unlimited free beer (that alone is pretty hard to imagine in hard-drinking Britain, where the cost would approximate to the National Debt) and sticky cakes. Finding that I and toastmaster John M. Ford shared a birthday, Minicon laid on a joint cake and a room full of people singing strange alternative words to "Happy Birthday To You".

Time to drop a few names. My co-guest Gardner Dozois, editor of Isaac Asimov's SF Magazine, was heard modestly describing himself to a group of feminist and lesbian writers: "Once you've had a fat old man, you won't wanna go back!" Lois McMaster Bujold was gloating that the Mobile Robotics / Machine Perception Lab had named an experimental robot after her. John M. Ford, Renaissance man, couldn't stop himself reading out passages from sf fandom's current choice of hilariously awful novel, Flight by Vanna Bonta: "He was having a grand time behind Section A controls of Z Zone when, without warning, his face turned umbrageous and he barked, 'But there is no chance of error!' [...] A laugh heaved forward from Juristac's massive body and broke up the catarrh deposits in his throat. 'But of course!' Juristac intermixed in his laugh-cough." Phil Proctor of Firesign Theatre fame, yet another guest, turned out to be a bosom friend and hot defender of Vanna Bonta, requiring hasty concealment of Flight whenever he passed by....

One day, Gardner and I were required to be entertaining at a 9am breakfast party. He set the malodorous ball rolling by starting a gleeful conversation about revolting childhood rhymes and legendary disgusting foods – causing me to remember and recite great chunks of Raymond Briggs's Fungus the Bogeyman, and worse. The resulting stampede for the toilets was a testament to the power of well-chosen words.

On these crowded weekends one tends to forget that there's a world outside the convention, but Minnesota made itself known on Sunday night with a spectacular electrical storm that repeatedly stitched lightning across miles of sky. Watching from a hot tub full of naked fans would doubtless have added to the experience, but, being Britishly uptight, I watched at a cautious distance from the party suite's tub of simmering flesh.... Was this decadence as she is practised in Minnesota? A British friend sneered at my naivete. He'd been exploring the bondage party.

Also outside Minicon was – surprise, surprise – Minneapolis. For us bookish types, there's an extra treat in being wafted to far-distant cities ... it gives a new perspective on novels that have been set there, while the novels add an extra touch to the cities.

For example, I never cross the Thames to Waterloo without remembering G.K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday and its view from water-level of "the great stones of the Embankment [... like] the colossal steps of some Egyptian palace." Alasdair Gray's fantasy blockbuster Lanark encourages you to notice the majestic as well as the grotty parts of Glasgow. I've lost track of how many US visitors have made me show them around Oxford and point out all the places frequented by Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey in Gaudy Night. Even my childhood home town of Newport (South Wales) became more exciting when a Man from UNCLE novel was set there and mentioned the old covered market: this was The Stone Cold Dead in the Market Affair, and the only bit of the plot I remember was the use of tortoises coated with luminous paint to strike terror into the hearts of the superstitious Welsh peasantry (me). H'mm!

At the 1980 World SF Convention in Boston, I found myself walking along the same streets as the narrator of Russell H. Greenan's sadly neglected fantasy It Happened in Boston? – and being watched by what were surely the very same evil pigeons whom he knew were spying on him. My trip to Seattle brought back memories of another fine urban fantasy, Wizard of the Pigeons by Megan Lindholm, whose magical action takes place among the city's street people. (Lindholm has since begun a new and successful fantasy career as Robin Hobb.)

This year it was Minneapolis, and my favourite fantasy novel of that area (are there others?) is War for the Oaks by Emma Bull – whom I didn't meet this time, because she's since buggered off to live in California. So when my native guide took me to Minnehaha Falls, it didn't trigger thoughts of Hiawatha but memories of the pitched battle between elven cohorts of the Seelie and Unseelie Courts that takes place there in Emma's novel. The book had also taught me to recognize Lake Calhoun at the heart of Minneapolis, and the city's strange air-inflated sports dome that glows like a vast phosphorescent mushroom. I was actually staying with friends on Blaisdell Avenue, an oft-used thoroughfare in the novel (and not far from Hennepin Avenue, mor recently immortalized in Peter Gelman's Flying Saucers over Hennepin). A mention of Byerly's as "the most lavish supermarket in Minneapolis" took on the ring of authenticity when I went there and saw the big tanks of trout and lobsters, all trying to look small and hoping that I'd pick a different one.

I wonder if sf/fantasy stories set in London or Oxford or Glasgow – especially Glasgow, the first two having been worn smooth by too many writers – seem similarly distant and unreal to American readers, until they visit the city at last and things come into focus? Anyway, if you can't visit Minneapolis then read War for the Oaks, and if you can't find the book I recommend a visit to Minneapolis. (There are copies at Dreamhaven Books, the local sf specialists. If you're lucky, as I was, you can find Neil Gaiman at Dreamhaven and go for a drink.) Best of all, do both.

All this about stories and places made me ponder that although I've published heaps of stories and even books, I haven't been too good at applying the classic advice "write about what you know" to cities or towns. I reckon I've set half of one short story in Newport, where I was brought up; one in Oxford, where education happened to me; two in Snowdonia, which I visit often; and none in Reading, where I've actually lived these last 22 years. (We draw a veil of official secrecy over my one-time workplace the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, which I milked to the tune of a whole novel plus a few shorts.) What a waste of potential material. Could I make Reading sound as exotic and utopian as Boston and those other US cities seem to me?

Or perhaps, drawing on recent research – the few parts I actually paid for being tax-deductible, of course – I should write an immense fantasy novel set among 3,350 wildly partying sf fans at the Radisson South Hotel, Minneapolis.