Contents Next

Conventional Thinking

It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that after three pints of Guinness everything sounds like a good idea.

"Lesh shtart a shcience fiction club!"


Thus was born the Nottingham Science Fiction Club, way back in 1974. But I must admit that there were motivating factors other than Guinness. Sex had a lot to do with it too.

There was a woman who I fancied something rotten. Most conversations with her were impeded by the drool dripping off my chin and my total inability to pronounce any words more complicated than "". However I knew that she was vaguely interested in SF. What a conversational opening that would be!

"Would you be interested in joining a new science fiction club?"

Such style! Such subtlety! Such grace! So many syllables! She wasn’t fooled for a minute; but it turned out not to matter.

After the Nottingham group formed I had an in (as it were) to the joys of organised science fiction and I began to hear about things called conventions. Several of us went along to one. I drove us all there in my trusty, rusty Volkswagen beetle (Alexander by name). I remember little about the convention apart from the Guinness, much of which was drunk at breakfast time to the great consternation of the hotel staff. However on the last day I eased up a little since I was to drive us all home. But Howard did not ease up at all…

He slumped zombie-like in the passenger seat, his skin colour matching the upholstery perfectly. After a hundred miles he said, "I can’t feel my arms. Are they still there?"

I glanced over to him. "Yes," I reassured him. "They’re still attached at the shoulders."

A hundred miles later he said, "Good."

On Queen’s Birthday weekend 1998 a science fiction convention called Construction was held in Wellington. It is nearly quarter of a century since I told Howard that his arms hadn’t fallen off. But nothing has changed. Monteith’s Black Beer proved to be an adequate substitute for Guinness. People partied all night long and had breakfast in a state of mild alcoholic stupor, the drinking hand clasping their glass in an unbreakable rigor mortis. That’s what I like about conventions. They are so…conventional.

For me, a highlight of Construction was the chance to meet Cherry Wilder. I have known of her for years and we have so many acquaintances in common that I am surprised we have not met before this. She rang me shortly before Construction to ask if I would be on a panel with her. I was hugely flattered to be asked and of course I agreed. Having got that out of the way we sat down and gossiped, tearing reputations to shreds, swapping embarrassing stories about famous people. About four hours later, when Cherry must have been facing a phone bill of super-galactic proportions she rang off. I could tell I was going to enjoy myself.

The time arrived for the panel. Cherry turned up with voluminous notes and gave an erudite opening. Richard Scheib, the other panellist, turned up with notes on the back of an envelope and was equally erudite. Norman Cates pulled out a man’s heart and dripped gore over cunningly placed newspapers. (The panel was about horror novels). Cherry impaled me with a steely glare. "Where are your notes?"

"I haven’t got any."

"What are you going to say?"

"I don’t know."

"You must have nerves of steel!"

I didn’t tell her that I make my living speaking off the cuff with half-formed ideas to rooms full of people. It was more impressive that way.

Science fiction fans are often sneered at by outsiders and we do tend to reflect a rather geeky image (particularly when gathered together at a convention) but one thing that becomes abundantly clear under these conditions is the fierce intelligence that hides behind this unfortunate image. I would suggest that the IQ of SF fans is considerably higher than the average in the population as a whole. (I don’t want to get side-tracked into a discussion of what IQ measures, if indeed it measures anything. Let’s just take that argument as read and pretend that IQ measures something to do with liveliness of mind). This was brought home to me quite forcefully at Construction. It was about 2.30am and a small circle of us were sitting around playing word non-association. One person would say a word and the next person had to say a word that had nothing whatsoever to do with first word. And so on round the circle. This is remarkably difficult to do even when fully compos mentis. At 2.30am after a large amount of partying it presents even more interesting challenges. (Toenail. Mountain. Cage. Video. Mouse. Cloth.)

Every so often someone would wander over and watch for a moment. Invariably the conversation would go:

"What’s this?"

"Word non-association."

"Oh. I can do that - move over."

And slowly the circle grew. Not once was it necessary to explain WHY we were playing the game and neither did we have to explain what it was. Simply naming the game was sufficient to spark interest (Book. Lever. Ice. Logarithm. Cushion. Spatula. Tincture.)

Imagine trying to play this game with (say) the people in your office. Would they understand why it’s both fun and funny? Would they understand that part of the pleasure comes from the fact that you aren’t playing word association? Would they understand the sense of play involved in the inversion? And would they even be able to do it, or indeed see any point to it at all?

None of those things were an issue at 2.30am. Everybody simply knew and they joined in and had fun. (Antimony. Projector. Waterfall. Roof. Diskette. Watch. Envelope. Wheel.)

It’s a small thing in itself but it’s symptomatic of why I keep coming back. I feel at home with SF fans; partly because of the sense of play, partly because of the sense of fun but mainly because of the potential for an enormously high level of debate matched with the understanding that trivialities can be profound (and that profundities can be trivial). I don’t get that anywhere else. I feel at home in this company. (Nose. Colloid. Thimble. Kitchen. Alphabet. Frequency. Claw. Power. Cufflink.)

The day after the convention I went to visit the National Museum, Te Papa. From the third floor balcony I could see all the way down into the foyer. Several convention members were visible below, just milling around. They caught sight of me above them. We waved to each other.

"Jump!" they called. "Jump! We’ll catch you. Honest!"

Contents Next