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 cant 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 expectedthe 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 tripswhile 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
allotherwise they wouldn't be writers to begin withand 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
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 questionsand 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
"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 gotthank 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 . . .
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.