Rockets Redheads & Revolution
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This volume is a follow-up to a similar collection of short fiction and essays of mine entitled Minds, Machines, and Evolution, that Bantam put out back in the eighties. At the time Lou Aronica of Bantam and I were considering the original project, several readers that I mentioned it to suggested including a biographical thread too, since all they ever got was the standard paragraph at the back of every book. Lou thought it was a good idea, and we incorporated a number of such pieces into MM&E accordingly. The were well received, so in putting together this latest collection, Jim Baen and I decided to follow the same pattern.

By the end of MM&E, I was living in a town called Sonora in the Sierra Nevada foothills, about three hours' drive inland from San Francisco. The principal s.f. convention in that part of the world was the Bay Area Science Fiction Convention, "Baycon," held every year in San Jose. Cons provide a good break for writers showing symptoms of advanced cabin fever from being holed up in solitary confinement with keyboards for too long, and whose verbal English has been reduced to ordering at the twenty-four-hour restaurant along the street and calling the phone company to find out what day it is. The additional attraction of a regular, local con is the feeling of being at home among familiar faces in a familiar setting, watching the familiar routine unfold. It's even nicer, of course, when you can do it as one of those special guests of the convention who get all their expenses paid.

But you can’t expect that kind of treatment every time, of course. Others have to have their chance too, and the typical writer guest accepts making it to the privileged list in some years, and settling for a free membership in others. Well, by the second half of the eighties I had been Baycon's GOH, Special Writer Guest, Toastmaster, and everything else that qualified, and so this year I was happy to just make my own way, collect a membership package at registration, and enjoy the socializing in return for working a few panels. But when I checked into my room at the Red Lion Inn, there was a pleasant surprise waiting. Standing in the bathroom was a large tub of ice containing an assortment of cans of my favorite beers and several bottles of wine, with a card attached to it that read: Welcome back to Baycon, compliments of the committee. It was their way of saying, "Sorry we can't cover your costs every year, but we're glad to have you back." Nice, I thought to myself.

Another thing that Baycon excelled at was parties. The organizers took the wise precaution of concentrating all the party rooms on one floor of the hotel that was kept mundane-free, so there were no complaints from bewildered or panic-stricken regular guests, and the con people could get on with having a good time. It made the parties a lot easier to find, too. As the night wore on, they tended to flow out into the corridor and merge into one giant party that kept the hard-core party goers happy and the security staff edgy through dawn.

One fact of cons that authors become resigned to is being assailed by young, aspiring, would-be writers who think that some of the mystique of being a pro will surely rub off if they get close to one and stay in proximity long enough. These are the people who bring notebooks to every panel on writing topics, show their expertise of the genre to be on a par with yours by citing books and authors that you've never heard of, and who could probably find allusions to symbolic metaphor in the Manhattan phone directory and debate the implied self-referential generalizations of a laundry list. The parties tend to be one of their favorite stalking grounds. Here, victims can be cornered off-duty, unable to invent urgent phone calls to be made to New York or to toss back a harried "Sorry, must get to a panel in two minutes" before retreating to the Green Room.

I say all this because it's expected—the kind of thing that authors tell each other in bars and agree how tedious it all is, to show that they're above finding gratification in such cheap ego trips—while all the time secretly reveling in it. The truth is that it's hard not to start coming on just a little bit when every word one utters is received with the raptness of a synod of bishops witnessing a theophany. It's even more true in a party setting when one is getting a little oiled oneself. Writers have an interest in communicating ideas, after all—otherwise they wouldn't be writers to begin with—and instant audience reaction is not something they get a chance to experience very often. All of which is a roundabout way of saying that given half a chance, they tend to talk a lot.

And so it was at Baycon. On the Saturday night of whatever the year in question, I was giving forth, probably on something that had to do with the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics or the impact of electronic networks on totalitarian societies, to a group of studentish young men with intense expressions and wire-bound notebooks, when I was interrupted by a hesitant tap on the shoulder. It was one of the girls from the con staff, eighteen or so, I'd guess, quite pretty, and visibly nervous over what was probably her first stint on the committee. She asked me tremulously, "Did you get our present okay, in your room?"

It was a heaven-sent opportunity to lighten the atmosphere a little after all the intense questions—and hell, after a few straight Irish whiskies I needed to. I looked at her somewhat coolly, as if reluctant to make an issues over something. "Yes . . . I did."

She caught the tone and looked concerned. "Oh? . . . Was there something wrong?"

"Well, yes, as a matter of fact, there was," I said. "Where was the long-legged kinky redhead?"

Her head gave a short, uncomprehending shake. "Long-legged kinky . . ." She faltered. "I'm sorry. I don't think I understand."

I emitted the kind of weary sigh that people make whose lives are a perpetual and predictable succession of evaporated computer bookings, wrongly ordered parts, and lost baggage. "Look," I said. "I was quite specific with John"—John McLaughlin was the con chairman that year—"as to the terms under which I would attend your convention. He agreed that two things would be provided in the room on arrival for my personal enjoyment over the weekend: one, a tub full of booze, which I got—thank you very much; and two, a long-legged kinky redhead. But—" I spread my hands appealingly, "no redhead. Where's the long-legged kinky redhead?"

The girl blanched and shook her head helplessly. "I'm sorry. I don't know anything about it. There must have been some mistake. I'll have to check. . . ."

And she fled.

I turned back, managing to keep a straight face, and was rewarded by the sort of incredulous looks that you see in biker bars when a naked Schwarzenegger says, "I neet your clothes, your shoes, unt der motor zycle."

"This doesn't really happen, does it?" one of them whispered.

I gave them a pained, worldly look, the kind that asks where you kids have been all this time. "Come on, guys, let's get real. You don't think we do this just for the money and the prestige, do you? I mean, what else is life really all about?"

They exchanged looks that ranged from seasick wan through honest-envy green to agitated scarlatina, and muttered.

"Hey, guys, there's no other way. We gotta be writers."

"That's the way to live, man."

"I knew it had to be like that. I just knew it. . . ."

But I acted as if it were nothing and returned loftily to our previous track of quantum weirdness or whatever, and with the Bushmills flowing smoothly, I quickly forgot about the incident and the bit of fun I'd had out of it . . . until I realized that she was back. She drew me a little to one side, nodded conspiratorially in a way that said everything was all right after all, and said, "I think we can do something."

This time it was my jaw that dropped. But before I could say anything she lowered her voice and went on, "But the convention does have its reputation to think about, and there are family groups here. We do need to be a little discreet. So just stay here, and I'll be back in a few minutes when everything's fixed up." And with a smile and a sly wink, she disappeared again.

I'm not sure what the others and I talked about after that. I was completely on auto-mouth, wondering if, in fact, it was I who had been out of touch all these years. I suppose we English have something of a reputation too, and who could blame these zestful colonials for exercising a little prudent discretion in our direction also, until they got to know us better. I tried to recall all the attractive redheads that I'd seen around the con, wondering which one of them might have volunteered, and found myself scanning the vicinity with rising impatience. Probably nothing was going to happen at all. . . . But then, sure enough, she appeared around a corner of the corridor a few yards away and beckoned with a finger.

I looked at the guys and shrugged with what I hoped came across as man-of-the-world nonchalance. "Well, it's been nice talking. When it's time to go, you have to go, I guess. Enjoy the rest of the weekend, eh?" I walked away like John Wayne leaving the bar-room, holstering a pair of smoking six-guns, but wondering inwardly how to handle this if they were serious.

And waiting around the corner, I found . . .

A redhead.

Tall, long-legged, and slender, smiling lasciviously.

And quite possibly very kinky.

He also had a big red mustache and a voice like Johnny Cash. "Hi," he greeted, thrusting out a hand. "My name's Mike. Glad ta meetcha."

And that was how the buggers got me at Baycon.

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