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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (congressus maximus cosmicos)

In Which We Are Conventional

The plane landed at Melbourne with a bump and a rattle. It was World SF Convention time, Aussiecon 4, and Robin and I were keen to see what was on offer. But first we had to find our hotel. Since we were staying at the Hilton, that shouldn't be too hard...

We hopped in a taxi.

"Γειά σου," said the taxi driver. "Πού θέλετε να πάτε?"

All the taxi drivers in Melbourne are Greek, except for the ones that aren't.

"The Hilton Hotel on South Wharf, please," I said.

"Δεν ξέρω όπου το ξενοδοχείο Hilton είναι." The taxi driver sounded puzzled. He dug around under the dashboard and produced a rather tattered looking book of maps. "Θα εξετάσω έναν χάρτη!"

Eventually, after much study and scratching of the head, he found where the Hilton Hotel might be and he set off to drive us there. Melbourne is a city of sloping structures, and we drove past many a curious artistic shape that pierced the skyline at surrealistic angles. I felt as if I was travelling through a picture by Magritte or Dali. It was the perfect landscape for a science fiction convention.

Eventually we reached South Wharf. There was an Exhibition Centre where the Convention itself was being held, and a Shopping Centre full of shops that weren't open because it wasn't 10.00am yet. The Hilton Hotel was between the two, and just behind it was a land locked wharf where a very large sailing ship was moored. The sails were furled, and it rocked gently to and fro.

"How did they manage to get that huge boat in there?" asked Robin. "There's no access to the sea."

"Probably it's a time machine in disguise," I suggested, "Perhaps it's a TARDIS which actually has a working chameleon circuit, unlike that decrepit pile of junk that Doctor Who stole from the Time Lords back on Gallifrey."

"Yes, that would make sense," said Robin. "Exciting isn't it?"

"I agree," I agreed.

The Hilton Hotel was hugely luxurious. The view from our room was of South Bank Promenade where, every evening, we could enjoy the huge jets of flaming gas that shot into the sky at hourly intervals, incinerating low flying seagulls for the amusement of wandering tourists. The guidebook told us that every time the jets went off they consumed a year's supply of gas for a domestic household. If you squinted just right, the spectacle looked exactly like a fleet of rocket ships taking off for Mars. Very appropriate for a science fiction convention.

The bed in our hotel room had a mattress that was two feet deep and wonderfully comfortable. When you lay down on it you fell immediately asleep and your rage at being awoken was almost homicidal.

"What more could anyone want?" I asked Rhetorically.

"Nothing," said Rhetorically to me as she fell asleep on the bed.

The room had both a shower and a bath (luxury, luxury) and it was also equipped with a hot and cold running Paris, ooh la la! Naturally I immediately indulged myself, but strangely it gave me no pleasure. It just made me sneeze.

I blew my nose and then investigated all the myriad cupboards and wardrobes in the room. In one of them I found an open safe with a combination lock. Inside the safe was a leaflet that told me how to choose my own private combination. Immediately I chose one and locked and unlocked the safe a few times just to prove that it worked. Then I put our passports in the safe and locked it firmly.

"I've put the passports in the safe," I told Robin, "so that they won't get lost or stolen."

"What a good idea," she said. "Now, let's go and investigate the convention." To hear is to obey, and so that's exactly what we did.

The Melbourne Exhibition Centre is a gigantic building with umpteen floors and a myriad of rooms on every floor. Quite honestly Aussiecon 4 was a little lost in such an enormous building and we rattled around in it. The week before the SF Convention, the centre had hosted a UN Convention and I suspect that even the entire world, as represented by UN, might have been a little bit lost in the building. Truly the centre is huge.

We registered ourselves with the convention and went exploring in order to get our bearings. Gaggles of fans gossiped in corridors and played spot the celebrity. Robert Silverberg walked past dripping groupies. Kim Stanley Robinson looked suavely intellectual. Charles Stross's flat Yorkshire vowels cut through the conversations. An American fan came up behind me and said, "Hello George."

My name is not George, but nevertheless, in the interests of international fraternity, I turned round and said, "Hello."

"Oh," said the fan, taken aback as he saw me close to for the first time, "you aren't George Martin."

"It's an easy mistake to make," I said. "After all, I am wearing the same kind of jacket and cap that George Martin wears, I have a grey beard just like George Martin has, and I am roughly the same endomorphic shape as George Martin. However when you meet the real George Martin, you will find that he is much larger than me in every single dimension, including the fourth. Also, he's a famous science fiction writer and I'm not. But other than that, we're absolutely identical."

"Sorry," said the flustered fan backing away with embarrassment, "sorry, sorry..."

The dealers room was full of stalls selling obscure books from small (mostly Australian) presses. I bought far too many of them and started to suspect that my luggage would be severely overweight when I flew home. Books are heavy. Robin bought some t-shirts, a shoulder bag, some postcards, two books with hollowed out interiors for hiding jewellery in, some jewellery for hiding in the hollowed out interiors of the books, and some small furry aliens which stretched and wriggled with pleasure when stroked.

Panel discussions on subjects both obscure and arcane took place every hour on the hour in all the myriad of tiny rooms scattered through the Exhibition Centre. Often it was hard to choose which one to attend. Mostly I think I should have chosen one of the other ones. Some of the events for children looked far more interesting than those for adults, but unfortunately I wasn't allowed in to the rooms where they were taking place because I had a beard. Children don't have beards in this universe, though they do in mine.

There was one very large room with tiered plush seating and a stage. Here the guests of honour gave their speeches.

Kim Stanley Robinson interviewed himself and refused to answer the questions that he was asked. Instead he answered the questions that he felt he should have been asked. The interviewer was left feeling very frustrated, but the interviewee spoke learnedly on Mars, Antarctica and the impact of science on society, to the benefit of all in the audience.

Shaun Tan showed us a drawing of a dinosaur that he had done when he was three years old (his mother is a hoarder and she never throws anything away).

"People ask me how I started drawing," he said. "I find this question hard to answer, so instead I just ask them why they stopped drawing. All children draw all of the time when they are young. But sooner or later, most of them stop. I just never stopped."

A perfect formula for an illustrious career as an illustrator.

After Shaun Tan's speech, Robin and I made our way back to the Hilton thinking vaguely of using the Paris for an hour or so. A fan came up to Robin and said, "Excuse me, could you ask Mr Martin to autograph a book for me?"

"I'd be happy to," said Robin, "but the man with me isn't Mr Martin."

The fan looked bewildered.

"Honest," I said in my best non-American accent. "I'm not George Martin."

The fan stared suspiciously at my convention name badge and read the name written on it. I noticed that he moved his lips as he sounded out the words to himself.

"Oh, sorry," he said and slunk away.

Robin and I carried on towards the Hilton. "I wonder how the fan knew that I was in charge of you," mused Robin. "Perhaps I give off supervisory vibrations?"

"I expect that's probably the case," I said. "You know, if the convention ever decides to have a science fiction writer look-alike competition, I think I'm in with a good chance of winning."

"Who would you enter as?" asked Robin.

I thought about it for a while, but really there was only one possible answer.

"Isaac Asimov," I said.

Learning Curve is the first volume of a (presumably two book) biography of Robert Heinlein. It has been written by one William H. Patterson Jr, a member of the Heinlein Society and a close friend of Heinlein's third wife Virginia. Before she died, Virginia chose Patterson to be the official biographer of her husband and much of the material in the book comes from interviews that Patterson had with Virginia herself. Unfortunately, by the time that the wheels of biography began to turn, not only was Heinlein himself long dead, but so were most of his friends and contemporaries. Patterson never met Heinlein, and when he began to research Heinlein's life there were few people left alive who remembered him. Furthermore there was very little written material left to corroborate Virginia's memories. Heinlein was a very private person who disliked exposing his inner self to other people, and he and Virginia burned almost all of his letters and private papers. Consequently Patterson was forced to rely almost exclusively on the public record (birth, death and marriage certificates; academic transcripts etc) to build upon the foundation of Virginia's reminiscences. The end result is a somewhat patchy book which may well reflect both Virginia's and Patterson's biases rather than any objective truth (if there is such a thing). Certainly there is no question that both of them admired Heinlein the man and Heinlein the writer above all others, and both were extremely reluctant to discuss anything that might show him in a bad light.

It also doesn't help that Patterson demonstrably plays fast and loose with historical facts and sometimes seems very reluctant to check what he writes with external sources, relying instead on his own quite fallible memory or, sometimes, the memory of those who report these things to him. Despite the voluminous and very detailed notes that he supplies in an attempt to document his sources, his scholarship often remains more than a little suspect. For example, on page 256 he misquotes one of Winston Churchill's most famous wartime speeches. What Churchill actually said was:

Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.

What Patterson claims he said is:

Never have so few done so much for so many.

thereby proving that not only does he have a tin ear for the poetry of Chuchill's rhetoric, he can't even be bothered to verify the actual words! Furthermore, Patterson then goes on to claim that Churchill made this speech about the evacuation of the remnants of the British Army from Dunkirk, whereas he actually said it about the pilots who fought the German air force to a standstill in the Battle Of Britain!

Again and again Patterson distorts the historical record (particularly the non-American historical record; like Heinlein himself, Patterson seems to think that if it didn't happen in America it can't be very important). All of that makes me wonder just how much he can be trusted to report accurately on the facts, such as they can be discovered, of Heinlein's own life.

But perhaps such minutiae are not important in themselves and perhaps Virginia really can be trusted to report the general truth on Heinlein, warts and all -- certainly the book is not a hagiography, which is a hopeful sign. Perhaps the grand picture really is all that matters. Patterson does extremely well on this level.

However I have to admit that from my point of view, the picture that Patterson paints of Heinlein makes him out to be a particularly repellent man. I'm sure I'd have disliked him intensely if I had ever met him, even though I absolutely love his writing (I even enjoy many of his later novels; books which a lot of people sneer at). But the way he is portrayed in the biography makes me suspect that both Virginia Heinlein and William Patterson have a sneaking respect and admiration for the very things that most disgust me about Robert Heinlein the man; and that makes me feel more than a little bit squirmy inside.

Heinlein was born into a poor family and he succeeded in life through his own efforts. You have to admire him for that. In his childhood and teens he worked at a surprising number of odd jobs that he used to fund his education and lifestyle. He asked little or nothing from his family (and received exactly that). The struggle to pay his own way was doubtless very influential in forming Heinlein's political and social opinions, and Patterson makes a very good case in favour of Heinlein's fiction truly reflecting the man's own opinions and attitudes. This is something that Heinlein fans have long suspected (though some influential critics have consistently denied that Heinlein's personal opinions manifest themselves in his fiction). It's very nice to have these long-held suspicions confirmed. Yah, boo sucks to the critics!

Heinlein's novels consistently display a very casual attitude to sexual relations and they play fast and loose with the idea of fidelity in marriage. They also preach a libertarian, almost survivalist political and social philosophy in which an armed society is presented as a polite society; and they espouse a social-credit-like economic model. All of these ideas are consistently present in Heinlein's own life; he once stood for political office and his campaign platform consisted of exactly these policies (though he failed to get elected). His first two marriages (and possibly also his third) were completely open relationships in which Heinlein himself was sexually promiscuous. Furthermore, to be fair, he fully expected and encouraged his wives to be the same. It is not always completely clear that his wives agreed with his expectations!

There is no doubt that Heinlein was a fiercely intelligent man with a deep knowledge of contemporary scientific, mathematical, philosophical and political/economic theories. He thought deeply about these things and his sometimes controversial opinions were firmly based on intellectual rigour. However he was also a very arrogant man who found it almost impossible to admit error. He was so firmly convinced of the correctness of his own stance on all things that he was quite prepared to ostracise friends and relatives when they dared to disagree with him (he refused to have anything at all to do with his own brother for more than a decade after a trivial falling out). This attitude was particularly marked when it came to patriotic support for America. Here his formidable brain appeared to turn itself off. He was an instinctive and utterly unthinking patriot and nobody, absolutely nobody at all was allowed to criticize anything about America in his presence. There was absolutely no question in his mind -- everything the American government (and by implication the American people) chose to implement had to be supported even if, as was sometimes the case, the policies disagreed with his own opinions. My country right or wrong was pretty much a fundamental knee-jerk reaction for Heinlein. He was rigidly unbending in this attitude, particularly in times of both hot and cold war, and it lost him many friends.

As I said, he was a nasty man in many ways; a man of whom I thoroughly disapprove. But his great saving grace was that he knew how to tell a story like nobody else before or since. His position as the Dean of Science Fiction (as so many blurbs on so many books have claimed for him) is unassailable. For that reason if no other, this biography is a very important work. It puts his life and his art in perspective and it shows unequivocally just how closely the two were intertwined.

I know absolutely nothing about K. A. Bedford other than the fact that he or she has written a really rather good novel called Time Machines Repaired While-U-Wait. The story takes place in 2027 in a town called Malaga in Western Australia. Aloysius "Spider" Webb is an ex-policeman who now makes a precarious living repairing time machines. He's doing OK, but he has his problems. He is in a dead end job and his marriage has fallen apart. He's not best pleased when he finds a dead body in a faulty second hand time machine. The investigation of the murder leads him into a conspiracy that has ramifications that reverberate to the End of Time itself.

In many ways it's a very traditional novel that could have been (and often was) written in the 1940s and 1950s. It reads like something that might easily have popped out of the typewriter of William Tenn or maybe Frederik Pohl. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I really like novels from that era and it was an enormous pleasure to discover that someone somewhere is still writing them.

Now tell me, (and think carefully about this) what career would you decide to embrace if your name was Norman Partridge? Would it ever occur to you that perhaps this was an ideal name for a writer of horror stories? Probably not, but nevertheless that's exactly what Norman Partridge decided to do. It truly is a most unlikely name for a horror story teller, but Norman Partridge has shrugged off that little handicap to brilliant effect and I've really enjoyed his stories.

Mr Fox And Other Feral Tales was Norman Partridge's first book. It's a collection of short stories and it was originally published by a very small press in a very limited edition. Nevertheless its reputation spread, probably just by word of mouth, and these days copies of the original publication change hands for huge sums of money. Subterranean Press have republished the book as a very handsome hardcover though again, unfortunately, in a very limited edition. My copy is number 407 of only 750. The stories in this new edition are interspersed with autobiographical essays in which Norman Partridge talks about his early life and the influences that shaped him as a writer. He also gives lots of practical advice about making a living as a freelance genre writer; the mechanics of writing and publishing, and the importance of self discipline (perspiration rather than inspiration, as it were). All in all it's a fascinating and wonderful book -- I'm not sure which I enjoyed more, the stories or the essays. But I commend Norman Partridge to your attention. He may have a silly name, but it is a name to be reckoned with. He's a very, very good writer. His stories are semi-traditional tales seasoned with a nice surrealistic flavour that is all his own, and I look forward to reading more of them.

Matthew Hughes has made his reputation as a distinctive stylist in the manner of Jack Vance. Many of his novels and stories take place in the Archonate, the penultimate age of the Earth, just before the final Age of the dying sun which Vance made all his own. Quartet And Tryptych is a short story (or possibly a novella) produced in a very handsome hardback limited edition by PS Publishing. It relates an incident in the life of the thief Luff Imbry, a man we have met before in other Matthew Hughes stories. Imbry is plotting to steal one of the 406 eidolons which are all that remain after the mass ritual suicide of the Iphigenza, an insectoid race who produced the original eidolons. To help him in his quest, Luff Imbry makes use of the essence of Waltrau Voillute, a noblewoman of the second tier nobility who has been dead for 4000 years. An eidolon owned by her grandfather is known to be locked inside a maze in which her grandfather was pleased to torment his enemies. Luff Imbry hopes to persuade Waltrau Voillute to give up the secret of the maze.

The success of the story comes from its extravagant conceits and the charmingly mannered stylistic quirks of the prose. Matthew Hughes is one of my favourite writers and I strongly urge you to spare no expense in seeking out his books.

PS Publishing are also the company behind A Reverie For Mister Ray, a collection of essays by Michael Bishop. Again, this is a very limited edition (mine is number 28 of only 500) and I think that's a pity for the essays are fascinating, erudite and sometimes very funny. The Mister Ray of the title is a reference to Ray Bradbury, an early favourite of Michael Bishop and a writer to whom he owes a lot, both structurally and stylistically. There are nearly 70 essays in this book and it weighs in at a hefty 611 pages. It contains reviews, formal and sometimes scholarly discussions of his favourite writers (including Jonathan Swift and Theodore Sturgeon), a manifesto on how to write reviews, sketches of his contemporaries, sly and often very funny satires (Oh! To Be A Blurber springs immediately to mind as a highlight) and a long, thoughtful and sometimes very funny autobiographical memoire. It's a delightful book and it deserves a much wider audience than I suspect it will ever get. Sometimes I think that limited editions are their own worst enemies. Certainly some limited editions will only ever have a minority appeal and so they are right and proper things to produce; but this limited edition is not one of those. This book really should be made very widely available. But that will probably never happen; so those of you who like these little treasure troves really should make the effort to buy this one. Trust me, you won't regret it.

The convention lasted for four days. Both Robin and I had a ball as we over-indulged ourselves in food, drink, conversation and the sybaritic luxury of our hotel room. We were both sorry when it was all over. But we were looking forward to spending the next few days staying with Robin's sister Wendy, Wendy's husband Jon, the children Ella and Tilly, and Daisy the dog. The accommodation would be less luxurious than the Hilton and I for one would certainly miss the Paris, but, in compensation, there would be children to play with and a dog to take for walks. On balance, it seemed like a fair exchange.

We checked out of the Hilton and caught a taxi. The driver wasn't Greek.

"?أين يمكنني أن يأخذك" he asked.

Robin gave the driver the address that we wanted.

"لا مشكلة," said the driver and he took us straight there.

Everyone was thrilled to see us. Daisy brought us her favourite squeaky rugby ball and a saliva soaked teddy bear. Tilly had just lost a tooth and she proudly showed us the gap and the actual tooth itself that she was saving for the tooth fairy. Unfortunately she later lost it, so she had to write the tooth fairy a letter instead. But that worked just as well. Ella played us a concert on her clarinet, Wendy gave us food and Jon gave us beer and wine. The conversation and the fun flowed backwards and forwards unchecked.

And just before midnight I suddenly remembered that I'd left our passports locked securely in the safe in our room at the Hilton.

William H. Patterson Jr. The Authorized Biography Of Robert Heinlein
Volume 1. Learning Curve: 1907 - 1948
K. A. Bedford Time Machines Repaired While-U-Wait Freemantle Press
Norman Partridge Mr Fox And Other Feral Tales Subterranean Press
Matthew Hughes Quartet and Triptych PS Publishing
Michael Bishop A Reverie For Mister Ray PS Publishing
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