The Touring Machine

Personal Digital Assistance on the Business Trip to Enlightenment

Copyright 1998 by Wil McCarthy, all rights reserved.



What can I say about the World Science Fiction Convention? If you've been to one, you don't need an explanation. If you haven't, there's nothing I can say that will communicate the texture of the experience, when ten thousand readers, writers, editors, artists, publishers, filmmakers, costumers and assorted fans and hangers-on converge in a single spot to spend five days worshipping at the altar of science fiction. Like nothing on Earth, I might say, but it would be trite and cutesy and would trivialize the experience. The words that come closest are ones like "awesome," taken literally, as in "inspiring awe," but these, too, can be misleading. Worldcon the Great and Terrible, yeah, but how to convey the incredible, tireless, carnival atmosphere of it all?

I won't bother. Go see one, or don't. I can't make you feel like you've been there without taking a lot more space than I want to here, and even if I tried, it wouldn't be the same.

What I'll talk about instead are the specifics of this particular year. A giant hotel complex in Annaheim, California, right across the street from Disneyland (and no, I didn't). A room on the seventh floor, shared with fellow young author Bruce Holland Rogers, aka Hanovi Braddock. Thursday night, a bunch of the other hot, "edgey" young novelists threw a coming out party of sorts, wooing fans with pork skins and Budweiser. Setup was a comedy of errors, but the party itself went quite well, with about a hundred people filtering through over a three-hour period, eating the food, chatting with us and with each other, and of course looking at all the books, dust jackets, cover flats and other assorted promotional materials with which we'd decorated the room. How many of these people were actually influenced to buy and read our books I really couldn't say, but heck, it was worth a shot, and anyway I'd be happy to throw a party for no reason at all.

Afterward we all prowled off for the tail ends of the several parties we'd been invited to but missed. Not much to say about these, except for the Ellison thing. Harlan Ellison is arguably the most famous and successful speculative fiction author alive today, his name being very nearly a household word both in the U.S. and abroad. He's also an emotional, extravagantly extroverted person, with a penchant for taking instant and permanent likes or dislikes to people. This sort of colorful behavior doesn't hurt his fame one bit, but it does make him sort of hard to hang around with. One strike and you're out, that sort of thing, so personally, I'm always half-expecting him to fly at me in a rage. Also, in face and build, he reminds me of a Denverite I really dislike, so I can't honestly say I'm ever fully at ease when I talk to him.

Ellison is exceedingly sensitive to these things, though, and like everyone he does want to be liked. So he's always really nice to me when I see him, and in fact he's taken a peculiar liking to me and my work, and says so loudly. Which is a weird feeling given his fame, and which of course makes me even more squirmingly uncomfortable, which makes him want to be that much nicer... It's a strange, silly sort of relationship, and it played in the Worldcon parties to much general amusement, including my own.

Friday saw my kaffeeklatsch and signing, lightly but sincerely attended. I personalized more books here than at any store, though, and when things slowed down (after the first 20 minutes or so), I pulled out the brain and got a little more work done on the novel. Anyway, there will always be writers out there with more fans than I have, but it's comforting to know there are at least some people out there who'll go out of their way to speak with me.

More parties. Sometime in the wee hours, I ran into the guys from Science Fiction Weekly, the World Wide Web-based magazine of the Science Fiction Channel. I had befriended these guys acouple of years ago, before their venture had really gotten started and well before it took off commercially, so it's easy to eat and drink and chit-chat with them without looking like a sycophant. They're just fun guys. I was wearing a temporary tattoo with the title of my latest book, MURDER IN THE SOLID STATE, and at some point they took a picture of it, which later got uploaded to the magazine's convention report. I doubt the free advertising will count for much in the long run, but symbolically it's nice to leave my mark.

Saturday, 31 August: hell day!!! First a brunch hosted by my new publisher, Del Rey books, at which I was priveleged to sit at the main table, with the executives and heavy hitters. Next came my reading, followed by drop-by signing an hour away (to which I hustled out and back), followed by panel discussion on nanotechnology followed by a sit-down signing at another hour- away bookstore. Whew! I spent most of the day in a state of blood sugar starvation.

Fortunately, my reading attracted some audience and seemed to go very well, and the nanotech panel was really cool, with hundreds of attendees, a dozen of whom came up afterward to speak with me and to get titles, etc., on my books. "Are these available in the dealer's room?" I guess I've achieved enough reputation both as an author and as a speaker that the convention organizers (being much more informed in the field than the general readership) are willing to place me on the tasty program items. It's nice to have an hour's attention from my actual target audience, instead of with semi-random groups with whom I may share some minor interest.

My signing out at Santa Monica's FLIGHTS OF FANTASY, however, was slow. This is one great thing about owning a PDA: fanless signings are less an embarassment than a slice of quiet time in which to get some work done. I used to carry a pad of paper for the same reason, but the time savings was minimal, since my scribblings needed to be typed in anyway, and I can type about as fast as I can think.

Also, it's not a real good idea to give yourself writer's cramp when you know you've got store stock yet to sign. I always sign the store stock last, before I leave, because doing so often attracts a crowd, which helps me sell more books, which lets me leave on a pleasant note. Which kind of happened today, although not really.

Santa Monica turns out to be very much like Boulder. It's larger and warmer, with ocean instead of mountains at the city's western edge, but it has the same sort of airy, pedestrian-oriented downtown, with roughly the same sort of carnival-diverse crowds inhabiting it. I ate a very pleasant (and welcome!) dinner at a Johnny Rockets on the 3rd Street Promenade, where frightfully slow service gave me a chance -- if not a choice -- to relax and look around. I then drove back to Anaheim yet again. Whee.

Each publisher has its own advantages and disadvantages, but hands down, no contest, Tor throws the best parties. Saturday's Tor party, a four-room sprawl packed with hundreds of people, was no exception. I wont't bother with the details, as one hot, sweaty, smoky party is much like another, but one thing that really stood out for me was swapping palmtop stories with Scott Edelman, editor of Science Fiction Age and the SciFi Channel's paper magazine, and the proud owner of a new HP200LX. To the amusement of onlookers, we managed to link our machines via infra-red beam, trading some files back and forth with no wires and physical contact. Coolness! No more high-tech than a TV remote control, I suppose, but it sure felt like a science- fictional moment.

Later on there was some silliness in a courtyard with a giant red ball that sounded like canonfire when kicked. I finally went to bed around 2 AM, but then had to get up again when I realized I'd left my hold-everything bag behind. So, rumpled and bleary I returned to the Tor party to retrieve it, and wound up staying for nearly another hour. These things have a gravity to them, sometimes.


Sunday, 01 September: The "Believable Aliens" panel went okay, but it's such an old, standard item it's hard to get as excited about it as nanotechnology, or to get the audience excited. Nonetheless, it ran half an hour over, and I signed several books afterward, and heard several promises to purchase. Afterward, I had the whole afternoon free, but found the art show closed, the panels and other program items lame, and myself extremely tired after a poor night's sleep. So I passed the day in a fog of boredom, and when my 5:30 PM linguistics panel rolled around, I turned my own seat over to an eager surrogate and sat it out until dinner.

It's hard not to notice the contrast between doing a tour and doing a Worldcon. There's a kind of zen purity to highway driving, especially on flat, straight desert highways. You have to pay attention, yes, but it's really a reflex thing, not very engaging to the frontal lobes; your mind is free to wander or go blank or whatever. Conventions require you to be "on" all day and evening, though, because if you're doing them correctly you are constantly running into people you know, or people you should know, or people who want to know you, and the expectation is that you'll trade at least a few minutes of small talk, and get into actual, involving conversation at least a few times a day.

This is great fun, and also very stimulating if you enjoy the sparring and gladhanding and tactful diplomacy of court politics. In a way, it's like everyone is counting coup; the more people you know, speak with, amuse or impress, the more points you get, with modifiers for fame, influence, novelty of setting, etc. But you can also lose points through ineptness or bad behavior, or association with same. The ultimate idea here is commerce, the cutting of deals and the promotion of books and stories and families of ideas. And there's a lot of genuine warmth as well, the glow of friendship and mutual respect and front-line egalitarianism. We're all in this together, citizen, and hey, would you like a business card?

The art of keeping up with all this is a godawful lot of work, even for those who are good at it. Maybe especially for those who are good at it.

Anyway, I started to perk up around sundown, and after sitting through the Hugo awards ceremony (interminable, as usual) I and my dinner companions sauntered off to the parties again. I made an earlier night of it that night, but after a major awards ceremony like this, the celebration is a bit more jolly.

Monday began slow and stayed that way. The closing up of a Worldcon is a curiously sad thing. No matter how tiring and exasperating an experience it's been, nobody really wants it to be over. And yet they slip away one by one, while those who remain watch the panels trail off, the dealer's room pack itself away into boxes and hand carts, and they sit around in stubborn denial until they too vanish. This is the way the Worldcon ends: not with a bang but a whimper. By the time I loaded into the car and pulled away, I couldn't find any friends left to say goodbye to.


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