The TransAtlantic Hearing Aid

Sixth Bit: Is There Life After Worldcon?

Tuesday 2 September 1980

Perhaps realizing that my TAFF instalments would later tend to start at breakfast time with the inevitability of Ivy Compton-Burnett novels, I didn't eat anything that Tuesday morning: so the notebook insists. Perhaps it was because the Copley Plaza Hotel threatened hearty eaters like myself with a MASS MEALS TAX sign, perhaps Hazel stood between me and the menu's inviting breakfast choice of Bloody Mary, Tequila Sunrise or Screwdriver. Quite possibly we had no appetite after staggering from the hotel lift, whose array of 21 blazing spotlights left you with no aim in life but to rush out and plunge into a snowdrift. Outside the Boston thermometers read 95°, and we toyed with the notion of rushing back to plunge into the lift.

Hazel and I returned briefly to the Sheraton-Boston: from a hundred yards away you could feel it was no longer a con hotel, and no fans were in evidence. As with a visit to one's old school, college or maximum security research establishment, the closed doors were all the more oppressive because yesterday we'd had the run of the rooms beyond. What exciting things might not be happening today, in those hidden halls and Gormenghastly passages? I almost suffered a pang of remorse at not having visited the computer gaming or filksinging rooms while I had the chance: the pang, however, was swallowed in a healthy surge of gratitude for the narrow escape.

Indefatigable tourists, we bore up under the blazing sun and went to see the sights of the Working-Men's Co-operative Bank, a name less redolent of Boston than of Bingley. Moving from strength to strength, we joined the long queue of sightseers in the nearby State Street bank, there to speculate on the enigmatic sign FOOD STAMPS SOLD HERE. Still unsated, Britain's vibrant representatives toured several more historic banks before reaching the First National, in the gigantic Hancock building whose mirror surface was last seen failing to reflect the Langford features in chapter 2. Here at length we found cashiers who didn't swoon with horror when confronted with the sterling travellers' cheques a falsely smiling Barclays Bank had assured us would be considered more desirable than cash itself, anywhere within the orbit of Pluto. Gentle reader, be warned. America is different. But then, so is Britain: the kindly cashier at the First National suffered near-terminal sensawonder when confronted by my driving licence and its expiry date of 2023.

Back in the Copley Plaza foyer, the now almost solvent Langfords met fragments of fandom. Harry Bell and Jim Barker, smiling hugely from their last night's loathsome dissipations and waving dubious grey cans of "generic BEER", were about to flee to Washington. Martin Hoare was smiling even more hugely and telling anyone who would listen about the total and ruthless efficiency which had engulfed Noreascon's communications and security once he joined up on Monday. "And Katie told me to enjoy myself," he added embarrassingly in whatever is the opposite of sotto voce, "so I (itemization deleted – Ed)." Rochelle Reynolds looked happy but exhausted from fending off the attention of Jim and Paul Kincaid – not yet having revealed her occult longings for (absent) future spouse Alan Dorey. Even Greg Pickersgill was smiling as he muttered things about "futility" and "shabby travesty of a con" and "bloody Americans", fondly watched by his American wife-to-be. Greg and Linda were enchanted by a cab-driver they'd ridden with... "He asked us, what's the SF con... He'd heard some guy on the radio called Harl something, Harlan. God, he said, he'd never heard anything like it. 'The guy must think the whole world's his. I bet he's short.'" Collapse of all present.

Collapse, too, of the Copley lifts. None were operating, and the word was that someone was trapped inside, perhaps raising future generations in a sealed environment. With no more effort than required to saunter up Snowdon, we visited the top floor for our voluminous (and now stuffed with volumes) luggage; with no more effort than required to cripple two once adequate bodies, we descended one storey and fell over. What happened then was like Ian Watson novels where the power of imagination evokes a new reality: before our desperate eyes an unsuspected lift door came into being and opened. Out stepped a phantasm whose proud bearing marked him as a secret master of vertical people movement. "This is the only one working," he intoned. "You go down in it quick." All unsuspecting, we went.

It was small, without the spotlights and plush amenities (up to though not including nine-hole golf courses) of the real lifts; you worked it with a handle. Bringing my Space Invaders experience to bear, I mastered the joystick and zeroed in within mere feet of the ground-floor level, we opened the door and with difficulty climbed down, into the eye of a teacup-sized storm.

"You got a licence?" shrieked somebody in overalls who appeared to think the whole world was his. (Yes. He was short.) "You got a licence? You know what you did? You broke the law, you got to have a licence for that elevator."

"The chap upstairs told us..."

"He never. You stole that guy's elevator!"

The tirade went on, our short friend explaining at great length how people could break legs climbing into the inexpertly docked lift, how you got to have a licence, and how the other guy was stranded upstairs now forever. Suggestions that he (a) remedy the hideous danger of the foot-high step into the lift, or (b) go and rescue his marooned pal, were brushed aside: here, it became plain, was someone who'd been attracted to his job by the opportunities for shouting. Little did I know that this misanthrope would take on a shimmering significance as the only person to be rude to us in all our trip. At least, the only American. Greg we have always with us.

The little knot of Britfandom in the Plaza foyer unravelled as we made our final escape and were taken firmly in hand by chunky Selina Lovett, an old-time fan. This description will undoubtedly annoy her, but on her UK visit in the early 70s she gained the unfortunate distinction of being the first American fan Martin and I had ever met. Now NESFA, New England's answer to the BSFA, seems fonder of serious constructiveness, rules debates, committee elections, convention-running and universal domination than of traditional arts like the fanzine: as a result Selina was one of only two Langford contacts in the area. The other was Alyson Abramowitz, and a strange chill seemed to descend on the gathering when I mentioned Alyson's invitation to visit, as though one had spoken of layout or correction fluid in the home of Keith Walker...

Into a vast car with Selina and her father, chiefly distinguished at first glance by his truncheon-sized cigar. Time to abandon the fan's-eye view of Boston (schematic diagram of hotels, restaurants, liquor stores, vague and empirical drunkard's-walk routes between) and play tourist at last. This was when I learnt with delight that the Hancock building was sinking imperceptibly but inexorably into the filled land beneath: "formerly the tallest building in New England." Something the size of a writing-desk in repellent pink granite, still being cemented to the street, proved to be a monument to the lore-and-profits chap Khalil Gibran. Public buildings loomed over wide streets, thick with fake-Roman inscriptions until you expected signs reading HAMBVRGERS. Martin convulsed over a delicatessen named Lox, Stock and Bagel; he recited British prices of everything to an appalled Mr. Lovett, whose cries of amazement and loathing were terrible to behold. Hazel's alarm grew as she noticed that every third building appeared to be a fallout shelter. There were kaleidoscope flashes of traffic, bridges, traffic, a glimpse of the sea, more traffic, fifty incredibly famous tourist sights which I forget; then we were crawling down what looked to be the prestigious warehouse district, a long drab row on either side, and was in fact the utterly famous Fish Pier.

Lovecraft-like it waited for us there: unnameable, unspeakable, unsignposted, indistinguishable from the surrounding warehouses, diffusing a miasma of eldritch horror and seafood... the 'No Name' restaurant, self-effacing in the manner of our Barbican Centre (the only London building to lack an outside) and unattainable without native guides. Inside, an awesome sight, Martin was observed to drink Coke. This was the closest available approximation to beer; I fancied a nice bottle of chilled white wine, and got 7-Up. The restaurant was plain and looked like the inside of a warehouse, which it doubtless had been. Mr. Lovett, having charmed Hazel with what she thought to be an East Coast American Jewish accent of great and classical purity, cast a practised eye over the menu and recommended everything. The colossal portions of seafood were said to be the best in many a parsec, but lifetime avoidance of small rubbery sea creatures had left me with no standards for comparison. Strongest memory is of the clam roll, another Lovecraftian touch, innocuous to the eye but strangely evocative in scent and taste. One thought of fishy ports like Innsmouth at low tide, of far-off dying things in stagnant estuaries, of weirdly distorted spaces separating one from the nearest toilet.

I still don't know whether I really like seafood.

There followed some confused transitions during which I noted that the town of Quincy was pronounced quinsy as in dog-strangling (see your local dictionary), that the NO SOLICITING sign outside the Lovett's apartment block in Randolph did not mean either of the things which first came to my horrid mind, and that Martin had travelled 3000 miles to photograph the Concord branch of Woolworths. Mr. Lovett having retired to bask in the family air-conditioning, it was Selina alone who introduced us to the teeming historical joys of New England. At first glance this seems to be an area which like Crete in the Saki story produces far more history than can be consumed locally. Closer inspection reveals that it's always the same bit of history, the rising against the cursed British, as commemorated in the numerous places where the first shot of the War of Independence was fired.

Concord, where the first shot of the War of Independence was fired, had by 1980 settled down somewhat: our survey indicated that local industry was divided between real estate, tourist shoppes and burying people. The town was toylike and hyper-landscaped, and some miracle of Yankee know-how kept its grass though not its visitors crisp and fresh in the baking heat. "Ice cream," said Selina in seductive tones, and I moved towards a further confrontation with stark reality.

For years your historian has been fascinated by one aspect of Larry Niven's work. An artist of great restraint and subtlety (I was told after daring to say Ringworld Engineers was dull), he hoards his powers of sensual description for certain paragraphs of shattering intensity. Not sex scenes, not epic battles, not the universe-wracking collision of black holes: the moment when Larry Niven pulls out all the stops is in his description of a hot fudge sundae. In the last seconds before the end of civilisation as we know it, Niven characters nip out for one final hot fudge sundae. When the Lucifer's Hammer comet is falling to smash the world, the only metaphor Niven feels will do justice to its awe-inspiring might is that of a hot fudge sundae.

For fear of repetition I won't mention what we ordered in that Concord ice-cream parlour. The result was sticky-sweet and lukewarm, and apparently had not been made right. Another fond illusion shattered. "You took them there?" spluttered Mr. Lovett later. "You're crazy! You must have left your brains back at the hotel!" Selina apologized; Hazel and I staggered about with tongues like flypaper; Martin thought the concoction was very nice.

Concord Bridge, where the first shot of the War of Independence was fired, is a particularly wondrous tourist spot, as instantly revealed when we'd walked up the long leafy path to get there. Had we really come 3000 miles to exchange words like Hello with Marsha and Eddie Jones, Colin and Joan Langeveldt, and Peter Mabey? "They came three thousand miles and died," I warned them with some fervour, "To keep the past upon its throne. Unheard beyond the ocean tide, Their English mother made her moan." All this was written upon a little brass plate dated 1775 but looking newer.

"Tacky," said Selina, not referring to the hot fudge sundae.

A sign pointed the way to THE OLD MANSE: HOME OF EMERSON AND HAWTHORNE. What a fascinating household it must have been. The man who said Isaac Asimov's mind has a foolish consistency, and the man who didn't. Suspecting that both Emerson and Hawthorne would be out that day, we proceeded no further. I poked about hopefully in the brilliant-green woodland for poison ivy, while the Joneses and entourage fled the scene.

Lexington, where the first shot of the War of Independence was fired, left no impression upon the memory except as a singularly inappropriate setting for Selina's query, "Do you find everything here more spacious?" ("Yes," said Martin. "Agoraphobic is the word," said Hazel. "Your pizzas wouldn't go through our doorways," I clarified.) We marvelled at the spacious land whose houses were all white and made of wood, defying such forces of British nature as wet rot, dry rot, death-watch, lyctus powder-post beetle, weevils and our favourite little friend Anobium punctatum or common furniture beetle, with all of which the British contingent had had intimate and embarrassing acquaintance.

Boston and Cambridge, where the first shot of the War of Independence was by some oversight not fired, were overrun by our party that evening. Unerringly Martin's sixth sense led us through the Harvard Square district to something called the Oxford Ale House. In its olde-worlde cellar they served Bass at liquid nitrogen temperature in fiddly eight-ounce glasses which once again didn't fit the image of a wider and more spacious land. "What you mean is, everything here is more specious," I suggested to Selina as the merest sip of beer converted my mouth to a cryonics chamber. We had to warm the glasses in our hands for long minutes, as though they contained a rare old frozen brandy. Perspiring Hazel found this soothing, while Selina's giggles couldn't be controlled.

"The difference between British and American fandom is mostly that you two British fans are sots," Hazel deduced inexcusably and correctly. Martin and I made our excuses and promised to do more sightseeing.

It was pleasant soaking up the university ambience of Harvard Square, parts of which were nostalgically like Oxford if you could imagine dank Oxford with a heatwave and a plague of 120-decibel crickets. More than once I had a perfect and eerie illusion of standing in Christ Church meadow, or of threading my way through Trinity or Magdalen College. No doubt by daylight it wouldn't be so easy to ignore the buildings' strong American accent. The illusion of Oxford was shattered when we found a series of bookshops still open and thriving late in the evening: I draw a discreet veil over the scenes of pillage which ensued. Several vast parcels were furtively conveyed to Selina's car, which may have been a mistake, since a tyre immediately exploded. Martin and I had many exciting adventures amid the strange and bizarre places where foreigners choose to hide their car jacks and free air taps: consoled only by quantities of Fosters from another miraculously open shop, we rode home in fear and trembling on a spare tyre whose condition would instantly have caused a British magistrate to assume the black cap.

In Randolph, Mr. Lovett admitted, the first shot of the War of Independence was not fired but might well have been. He went on to reveal local scandal about the Boston Tea Party, the participants in which were (he said) all as tired and over-emotional as newts. I choked back the reflection that after Hazel's experience with a moribund teabag's death throes in lukewarm milk-and-water, one could see why they hurled the rotten tea into the harbour: this cannot be a new observation and was probably first made by Paul Revere.

The Lovetts senior, good people, forced quantities of food into us, reeling at Martin's cultural comparisons. "Corn costs a dollar a cob back home," he would say casually, and watch them boggle as they contemplated the pantechnicon load of corn-on-the-cob Selina had picked up for $1.75. Still eager to sample new goods, new drinks, and generally to boldly go, we tried another item of US exotica: root beer. It tasted medical – specifically, like that transparent red brand of toothpaste. "Noooo..." said Selina disbelievingly as in turn the Brits delivered this judgement; then, assailed by doubt, she took a sip herself. A wondering light came into her eyes. "Hey... it does." If this truly is a constituent of the famous Spayed Gerbil, that drink's cult status is even less explicable.

With a day of recuperation behind us and our minds partly de-blown, it was possible to think again about Noreascon. "Whoever did the lighting for the Hugo ceremony and the masquerade ought to be shot," said Martin omnisciently. "Never in twenty years as a stage lighting expert have I seen anyone use primary green, red and blue for illuminating spots." Mr. Hoare, who at that time was 28, went on to explain how he'd had to teach the professional lighting man at Seacon '79 how to focus his own lanterns.... [1]

"A touch of amateurism," I suggested. "Humanizes the whole thing. I couldn't care less about the bloody lighting, anyway. It was some of the fans that worried me, the loons with their ultra-realistic simulated machine guns and suchlike."

"Dave," said Martin. "Some of those weren't simulated."

"Argh," the Langfords profoundly commented, in unison.

Selina, a jackbooted Noreascon committee member, said "Don't quote me, but –" and launched into a monologue about unbelievable atrocities committed by 'fans' over the past few days. We listened, fascinated and horrified at the tale of mayhem, only occasionally interjecting "Bloody hell!" or "Never!" or "With a melon?"

Here we saw for the first time the Secret Celebrity Guide, a programme-book supplement hastily produced (though never actually distributed) to appease Ben Bova. Reportedly, after thinking himself too huge a celebrity to bother providing a mini-biography for the main programme book, he'd been deeply piqued at his consequent omission: hasty appeasement, and the supplement, followed...

Another convention viewpoint was waiting for us on the table. "'Pardon me,' said the Hobbit as he stopped the well-dressed matron on her way down the stairs, 'but is this the way to Middle Earth?' Whereupon the woman calmly looked around her and replied 'I don't know, but this is the Sheraton-Boston Hotel.'" So began the Boston Evening Globe's carefully balanced coverage of this literary event. Quotations came as usual from hand-picked cretins: "a woman who would only identify herself as 'Pixie, as in Dungeons and Dragons'." Reporters had worked long and hard to locate the wrong end of every stick (and thank God they never learnt of the Astral Pole): Bruce Pelz's rather jolly fannish Tarot pack, variously painted by 85 different SF/fan artists, was ingeniously covered in the line "Battlestar Galactica playing cards were selling for a mere $15 a deck." Suspicions that the Boston Evening Globe was pulling fandom's leg began to grow when we reached a bit concerning the archetypal fan who "described the convention in a word: 'Wow!'" If only it had been "Goshwowohboyohboyohboy!"

Once upon a time we fans would complain that newspaper coverage of the exhibitionistic few at conventions was Unfair. We knew that. We were the silent majority, the comfortably dressed element, the ones with sensitive fannish faces. Some day our cause would prevail, as at Yorcon 1979, where the first shot of the War of Independence was fired and the committee wangled trufandom's viewpoint into the local press. ("The Trekkies... they're our Irish joke.") But the balance has shifted in America and is shifting here, by a process of positive feedback: each time a reporter focuses on the gaudy, eye-catching minority, protofans out there are reinforced in their view that the essence of fandom is waving lasers and dressing funny. They plunge in themselves, equipped with pointed ears and four-foot broadswords to help them blend in. The costumed minority becomes that much less of a minority, leaps that much more obviously to the reporter's sensation-seeking eye...

(Angela Carter professed disappointment in fannish garb at Channelcon 1982. She'd read the papers. She sincerely expected a hotel full of pointed ears.)

I went to bed wondering if the ever-increasing wave of costumed silliness mightn't have some positive aspect. Once upon a time, when SF was despised, fans had more sense of community: the chosen few who could see past the garish pulp covers to whatever shreds of literary worth lay within. Now SF is all too respectable, and anyone can play; perhaps this very popularity has erected a new ring of defence about 'true' fans. Perhaps only the chosen few see past the garish tinsel g-strings to achieve cosmic oneness with other unkeen on the pointy-eared and beweaponed idiocy which screens 'our' fandom from the public eye.

There's an elitist viewpoint for you, eh? Everyone ought to be in some elite or another. You too can be insufferable. Try new spray-on Hubris™. It's fun. For example:

The Langfords had taken over Selina's bedroom in the vast reshuffle which shoehorned three extra bodies into the not overly huge Lovett apartment. Hazel kept nudging me in a definitely elitist way, pointing to the vast fan which patiently shoved hot air across the room and back again. "Look at the trademark," she said. I looked blearily. "KelAire?"

"Isn't that remarkable!"

"It is?"

"The name of my favourite Tuareg tribe," she said smugly.

"I can't take you anywhere," I muttered, and went to sleep.