Archive for Conventions and Fandom

Heading Off to Balticon

Dara, the boys, and I are heading off to Balticon this weekend. We’ll be there Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. This will be our first Balticon, and we’re really looking forward to it.

The Balticon 46 hotel is the Marriott Hunt Valley Inn, 245 Shawan Road, Hunt Valley, Maryland 21031 (Phone: 410-785-7000). The at-the-door rates are $62/$31 (adult/child 6-12) for the full weekend, and daily rates range from a high of $44/$22 for Saturday to a low of $17/$9 for Monday.

Here is my line-up of programming. There is also a ton of kids programming at this convention, so Levi, Asher, and Judah should not get bored.

Saturday, 2:00 pm (50 Minutes) (Salon B)
A Cthulhu Out of the Hat
Writing Prompts for the Deranged, panelists and audience write
science fiction stories based on the items pulled out of a hat.
Panelists will read their stories at the end, audience members
will share their resulting stories at 11 PM on Sunday (Salon B).
(M): Andrew Fox, (S): Larry A. Reclusado, Gabe Fremuth, Cindy
Young-Turner, Hildy Silverman, Brandon (Brand) Gamblin

Saturday, 5:00 pm (50 Minutes) (Salon A)
Readers Ask Why
A changing panel of authors is on the hot seat as their fans ask
why their characters behave as they do, why the author chose
this sort of magic instead of another, why the world a book is
set in has certain dominant properties/elements. Once a panelist
(or moderator) answers a question, they’ll swap seats
with a panelist waiting in the first row to replace them. Audience
members who take over 30 seconds to ask their question
will get buzzed and must sit down and shut up with their question
unanswered! Panelists who take more than 2-1/2 minutes
to answer a question must take the moderator role and can
only answer another question after all the panelists at the table
when they took the moderator seat have swapped out. Oh!
And one more thing: Panelists who write SF/Fantasy/Horror
under more than one name can swap in again under their other
pen name IF they — literally — wear a different hat.
Starting Out: Moderator: Catherine A. Asaro; Panelists: John G.
Hemry, John C. Wright, Danny Birt, Steven H. Wilson
Panelists swapping in: Andrew Fox, Chuck Gannon, Nathan O.
Lowell, Janine K. Spendlove

Sunday, 9:00 am, (50 minutes) (Parlor 1041)
The Technology of Steampunk
A Roundtable Discussion. What does and doesn’t fit into a
steampunk world? How does the setting shape technology and
how people relate to it?
(M): Emilie P. Bush, (S): Elektra Hammond, Rebecca K. Davis,
Danielle Ackley-McPhail, Bernie Mojzes, C.J .Henderson, Andrew
Fox

Sunday, 5:00 pm (50 Minutes) (Parlor 304)
Philip K. Dick — Hollywood’s Favorite Author
A LOT of Phillip K. Dick’s work has ended up on the silver screen.
Panelists discuss what makes his work so Hollywood-sympatico
and talk about the ones that were great, not so great and, well,
blaghhh!
(M): D. Douglas Fratz, (S): Billy Flynn, Andrew Fox, Bernie Mojzes,
Daniel M. Kimmel, Marty Gear, Richard Allen Leider

Sunday, 7:00 pm, (1 Hour) (Maryland Foyer)
Autographing: David Allen Batchelor, Andrew Fox and
Veronica R. Giguere

Sunday, 10:00 pm (50 Minutes) Belmont Room
You Got Your Horror in My Fantasy!
Psychological horror as fantasy exploration. Panelists discuss
what they like and dislike about and what they think does and
does not work with this blending of sub-genres.
(M): Paul Elard Cooley, (S): Andrew Fox, S. Phil Giunta, Richard
Allen Leider, T. C. McCarthy

Monday 10:00 am (50 minutes) (Salon B)
The First Fast Food Joint on Epsilon V
What parts of our culture will we bring with us to the far
reaches of the galaxy and beyond? As we spread our wings
to the stars, what parts of our culture will journey with us?
What institutions and traditions will we carry to new worlds?
Will those cultural trappings be American or other? Or are our
cultural trappings tied to our current world and will we travel
outward without them?
(M): Andrew Fox, (S): Jody Lynn Nye (Guest of Honor),Noam R.
Izenberg, Patrick Scaffido, James Maxey

Monday, 11:00 am, (50 minutes) (Salon B)
Sci Fi In Comic Books Revisited
What is the relation of science fiction to comics? How have
the concepts been used? What shows’ plot points have been
adapted to comics and vice versa?
(M): Larry A. Reclusado, (S): Wayne Arthur Hall, Rebecca K.
Davis, Andrew Fox, Ray Ridenour

Monday, 1:00 pm (50 Minutes) (Pimlico)
Readings: Andrew Fox and Georgiana Lee

I hope to see some of you there!

Nebula Awards Weekend

An unfortunately dim photo (L to R) of Judi Castro, Levi, Judah, Adam-Troy Castro, Scott Edelman, and Asher

What I Saw at the Nebula Awards Weekend; or, the Semi-Bummed Out Observations and Kvetchings of an Underpublished Writer, Who is Ultimately Rescued From Melancholia by the Fruits of His Loins (part XXVIII or thereabouts in an occasional series)

What a difference a year makes… or not. SFWA’s Nebula Awards Weekend was held in the Washington, DC area two years in a row, not far from where I live. Last year my attendance got me all pumped up with enthusiasm and fresh ambition; I kicked off what I thought would be a promising collaboration with Ridan Publications and vowed to restart my website. This year? Not so productive; a bit of an emotional roller coaster for me, with my emoticons shifting from pleasant anticipation to pervasive melancholia to a warm, nourishing appreciation of my kids (and later, as per usual, getting fed up with them and wanting them out of my hair for an hour or two).

Oh, I wasn’t on the same emotional roller coaster, certainly, that I’m sure many of the award nominees were (my friend Adam-Troy Castro was nominated in two categories this year, I believe his sixth and seventh nominations, but, once again, did not walk away with one of the coveted Lucite blocks). I was on the periphery, only putting in my appearances because the awards weekend was being held virtually in my backyard and friends were attending who I wanted to see. My roller coaster was more like one of those miniaturized coasters that occupies the kiddy corner of most carnival midways, the one that you need to be taller than Popeye to ride. It doesn’t go very fast, doesn’t rise very high, and it always brings you back around to wherever you started from, then grinds to a noisy halt.

I’d originally only planned to attend the mass book signing on Friday night, since my father was supposed to be flying in from San Diego Thursday night to spend a long weekend with us. Part of the reason for his visit was so that he could celebrate his 80th birthday with me, Dara, and his three grandsons. Getting my father on an airplane is a tricky business; he doesn’t like to fly, and all of the headaches of flying that have accumulated since September 11, 2001 have only made matters worse. Thursday afternoon, his flight was canceled by mechanical problems, after he’d been waiting in the airport for over three hours. He caught me on my cell phone before I headed to Dulles International Airport, and he said he’d try to reschedule to come in the following night on the same flight. That would still allow me to attend the shared book signing at the Nebs in Crystal City, Virginia, so long as I headed straight for Dulles right after the signing. He called me back to let me know he’d been able to get a seat on the Friday afternoon flight. Since I’d already secured Friday off from work, I made plans to attend a full day of Nebula Awards Weekend events before picking him up.

My Friday got off to a rocky start. Trying to make a 10 AM panel discussion, I battled traffic on I-95 heading towards Washington, DC, got befuddled by my Google Maps directions to the hotel, skipped one parking garage that I considered horrendously overpriced, parked (because I was now running late) at another garage that was even more expensive, and then got completely turned around and walked a mile out of my way toward the wrong hotel before being redirected by a bellhop toward the Hyatt Regency. I arrived at my meeting a bit of a sweaty mess, but Dr. Alice Armstrong’s presentation on artificial intelligence was enlightening and interesting. Then I walked over to the SFWA book vendor, both to browse and to make sure some of my books were sitting on the tables. Big negative on that. The manager very kindly apologized and said that the box from IPG (Independent Publishers Group) had never arrived, so he had no books from either Tachyon Publications or Golden Gryphon Press to offer. Kathy Morrow, who was volunteering at the register, offered to take any books I had with me on consignment. I’d brought along a sample/display copy of each of my books, so I took her up on her considerate gesture.

Lunch at a local deli ended up being one of those happily serendipitous affairs wherein one’s friends and acquaintances pop up every time one turns around. I ended up lunching with Jamie Todd Rubin (frequent contributor to Analog and blogger on Golden Age science fiction), Alethia Kontis (author of AlphaOops! The Day Z Went First, AlphaOops! H is for Halloween, and the recently published YA fantasy Enchanted), and two members of the James River Writers Group. After lunch, Alethia and I hurried back to the “Improving Your Website” workshop, which I’d attended last year (when my old website was long defunct and had been colonized by a porn store, and I hadn’t yet started my new WordPress site). Utilizing me (as they did last year) as a humorous object lesson, the facilitators emphasized the importance of continuing to pay annual fees to domain registry services by demonstrating how allowing one’s domain name registry to lapse allows all sorts of opportunistic businesses to claim jump one’s old web address. Last year, www.andrewfoxbooks.com had been a porn site; this year, we discovered that the site’s registry had lapsed yet again, and the new owners were using the my former web address to sell condominiums in Japan. This represented a social promotion for me, it seemed; maybe come next year, my name will be selling commemorative dinner plates featuring the authorized likenesses of the stars of James Cameron’s Titanic. My new website, by the way, got a clean bill of health from the workshop’s facilitators, whom I thanked for having lit a fire under my tuchis last year.

Judah, Levi, and Asher with the NASA display

My wife left me a message while I was in the workshop. My father wouldn’t be coming, after all; his afternoon of waiting in the airport had drained him, and he’d decided he just wasn’t up for a repeat and for then sitting on an aircraft for five hours. I couldn’t blame him, certainly not at his age, but I was very disappointed. I hadn’t fully realized how much I’d been looking forward to his visit and celebrating his birthday until I learned he wouldn’t be coming. He has been one of the few relatives who has regularly come to visit my kids, and I’ve been anxious to see their ties grow stronger. I’d planned a very full weekend for us and gotten my boys all revved up. I think I ended up at least as disappointed as any of them.

Hoping to cheer myself up, I decided to catch one more panel discussion before the mass signing, the one called “Tragedy is Easy,” discussing the use of humor in science fiction. The panel was loaded with heavy hitters — Connie Willis, James Morrow, James Patrick Kelly, and SFWA President John Scalzi. Illustrating, perhaps, that the mechanics of comedy can be difficult to analyze, even for such a distinguished collection of practitioners, much of the panel consisted of exchanges of bon mots, rather than the program teaching “Comedy Writing for Advanced Writers” that had been advertised. The best exchange of the panel came when the subject of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy arose. James Patrick Kelly compared the impact of that book to the impact of Star Wars. Just as Star Wars in 1977 had precipitated an “extinction event” for the run of post-apocalyptic science fiction films which had preceded it (films like Logan’s Run, A Boy and His Dog, and Zardoz), so did the overwhelming success of Hitchhiker’s Guide wipe out virtually all subsequent editorial interest in any form of humor in science fiction not written in the British music hall tradition. (And perhaps that helps to explain the trajectory of my career in the field.)

Then came the signing. Ask most writers: group signings of almost any size or venue are slightly humiliating at best, mortifying at worst. The first mass signing I participated in was at Comic Con International in 2004, just after Bride of the Fat White Vampire came out. Del Rey had invited me. They had also invited China Mieville, whose The Iron Council came out at the same time. I sat next to China, who could not have been nicer. His line remained two dozen deep throughout the signing. I had no line at all. I think one person wandered over to talk with me. If we had been movies at a multiplex, China would have been Avatar and I would have been Jerry Lewis’ magnum opus The Day the Clown Cried. The best one can do when participating in an event of this sort is to consider it a social venue and squeeze in as much fun conversation with your fellow sufferers as possible.

Friday night, I at least had the good fortune to be sitting with Adam-Troy and Judi Castro. Adam, as I mentioned above, had been nominated for two Nebula Awards and had also just embarked on what promises (we all hope) to be a super-duper successful middle grade horror-fantasy series that is slated to receive big-time support from its publisher. Adam and Judi are dear friends; when Dara, Levi, Asher, and I were stuck down in South Florida after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Adam and Judi collected clothes and books and toys for my two baby sons (Levi was 21 months and Asher was 6 months old), and they even found us a Cozy Coupe play car that the boys adored. I hadn’t seen the Castros in a number of years, so we had lots of catching up to do. Their presence saved me from being a complete grump, between my father’s canceling his visit and my vague sense of being a beggar at a banquet. (One’s sense of being Charlie Brown at Halloween time — “I got a Hershey’s bar!” “I got a bag of candy corn!” “I got a rock…” — is all relative, it turns out; during the signing, a couple of my pals with recent book publications under their belts and better deals on deck, who’d been merrily signing away throughout the evening, conferred with each other regarding who among the assembled writers had attracted the longest autograph lines. Another friend in the biz once told me that he’d heard that Ursula K. Le Guin would never read the People and Publishing column in Locus because she found it too painful to learn about the advances and deals other writers were receiving.) Anyway, after the signing was through, I wandered back out to the book selling area to see whether any of my sample copies had sold. I gathered all three and trudged home with them. And here I’d had the audacity to worry about IPG’s failure to deliver a carton of my books. That’ll learn ya…

The next day I decided to take Levi, Asher, and Judah back to Crystal City with me. The Castros had hoped to see the boys the previous night (I’d been planning to have the whole gang with me prior to my father’s travel plans changing). Also, Gordon Van Gelder and I had been trading fatherly gibes on FaceBook about fixing up his beautiful six-year-old daughter Zoe with one of my boys (who range in age from five to eight), and Zoe had seen our exchange and had been looking forward to meeting my crew. Gordon and Zoe had showed up at my table at the signing, expecting to see Levi, Asher, and Judah, and I’d had no boys to share and had felt like a heel for disappointing such a vivacious young lady. So I shlepped the boys out of the house, tried (unsuccessfully) to burn off some of their excess energy by letting them jump in bounce houses for an hour at the Prince William County Healthy Families Expo, drove them up I-95 to Crystal City, and fed them lunch at Subway before taking them into the Hyatt Regency. We ran into my good friend Mark Sarney, SFWA’s newest member (he’d joined two days earlier), then wandered over to the NASA table where a presenter (who was actually Colonel E. Michael Fincke, a retired astronaut, but I didn’t learn that until after the boys had talked with him, darn it) was handing out fistfuls of cool free stuff, photos of nebulae and galaxies and holographic postcards of parts of the International Space Station. Adam and Judi Castro came down from their room and met the kids, whom they hadn’t seen since 2005 (and they’d never met Judah before). When the boys became restless (as boys will tend to do), Judi suggested that we ride the hotel’s glass elevator, which provided panoramic vistas of Crystal City and parts of Washington, DC. That amused the boys and stanched the complaints of, “I’m bored!

Then Adam mentioned that there was a SFWA hospitality suite up on the 18th floor, and my boys have been to enough science fiction conventions that their eyes instantly light up when they hear the words, “hospitality suite.” So back up we rode. Jackpot! The H.S. had cheese, crackers, grapes, Diet Coke, juice boxes, mini chocolate bars, and a bowl filled with malted milk balls — all the basic food groups necessary to bridge the insufferable stretch between my boys’ lunch and dinner times. Plus, the view out the suite’s windows was even better than the view from the glass elevator.

Judah, Zoe Van Gelder, Asher, and Levi in the SFWA hospitality suite

Gordon Van Gelder gave me a call to let me know that his wife Barbara and daughter Zoe had gotten back from their sightseeing in Washington. They joined us in the hospitality suite. Even though I was supposed to get Levi to a birthday party back in Woodbridge for 5 PM, I decided to stick around for a while and let the kids get to know each other. Zoe was a little shy at first, but after ten minutes or so the four kids formed themselves into a little gang and took over the suite, commandeering the couches closest to the windows so they could lean over the window sills and stare at the big world outside the windows. Judah entertained (at least some of) the adults with his renditions of Japanese kaiju monster roars. Levi worked on one of his street map pictures and asked the Castros if he could consider them his “fake grandparents” (they graciously said yes). Asher, my social butterfly, talked with Zoe and pointed out interesting landmarks eighteen stories below (“Look! There’s the swimming pool, see?”). I talked shop with Gordon, which I enjoyed greatly (Gordon, apart from being one of SF’s most distinguished editors, is very charming), although I gradually grew more and more guilty about making Levi late for his birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese’s.

Finally, it was time to go. The kids had gotten along so well that I felt my typical pangs of “Darn! I wish they lived closer!” As soon as we got back down to the lobby, Judah, my five-year-old, announced, “I have a girlfriend now!” He repeated this assertion all the way back to the car and until we got back onto I-95 and headed south, at which point his brothers managed to hush him by insisting that if he said it one more time, they would both vomit. I told them this wasn’t a nice thing to say to their younger brother, who was only expressing honest affection (if in an irritatingly repetitive way). Judah decided to get the last word in by insisting that Zoe was HIS girlfriend, not Asher’s. Asher said disdainfully that Zoe was his friend, not his girlfriend. Which seemed to satisfy Judah. Who later reported to his mother, “I am in love now!”

One thing about having three young boys… I find it impossible to stay bummed out for very long. They simply won’t allow it. Exhausted from them? Yes. Pushed to wit’s end with them? Sometimes. But blue and melancholy? My boys, God bless them, are kryptonite to the blues.

Nebula Awards Weekend Book Signing–Hope to See You There!

This Friday evening, May 18, I’ll be taking part in the mass book signing at the Nebula Awards Weekend from 5:30-7:30 P.M. This is an event that is free and open to the general public (not just folks who register for the awards weekend). It’s a great opportunity to get your books signed by several dozen of your favorite science fiction and fantasy writers (and to buy their books, too, which will be on sale in a display outside the autographing and meet-and-greet room). The Nebula Awards Weekend will be held at:

The Hyatt Regency Crystal City Hotel
2799 Jefferson Davis Highway
Arlington, Virginia

The Book Depot will be open on Friday from 11:00 A.M. to 3:00 P.M. and will then reopen during the two hours of the mass signing.

Some of the writers who plan to participate in the book signing include:

Brad Aiken

R.J. (Rebecca) Anderson

Lou Antonelli

Franny Billingsley

Marilyn Mattie Brahen

Robert Brent

Grant Carrington

Michael Cassutt

Adam-Troy Castro

Brenda Clough

Myke Cole

A.C. Crispin

Wendy Delmater Thies

Michael S. Dobson

Gardner Dozois

Andy Duncan

Scott Edelman

Timons Esaias

Cynthia Felice

E. Michael Fincke, Col, USAF (Ret); NASA Astronaut

Jim Fiscus

Andrew Fox

Nancy Fulda

Charles E. Gannon

Carolyn Ives Gilman

Joe W. Haldeman

James Patrick Kelly

John Kessel

Alethea Kontis

Mary Robinette Kowal

Ellen Kushner

Maria Lima

Richard A. Lovett

Lee Martindale

Jack McDevitt

James Morrow

Diana Peterfreund

Geoff Ryman

John Scalzi

Stanley Schmidt

Lawrence M. Schoen

Darrell Schweitzer

Delia Sherman

Bud Sparhawk

Katherine Sparrow

Rachel Swirsky

Brandie Tarvin

Sandra Tayler

Mary A. Turzillo

Genevieve Valentine

Jo Walton

Bud Webster

Richard White

Walter Jon Williams

Connie Willis

That’s some list, isn’t it?

So, if you’re in the area or will be passing through, come on over and see me (and all those other terrific folks) on Friday night. I’ll have my whole family with me (we’ll all be rooting for our friend Adam-Troy Castro to win at least one of the two Nebula Awards he’s up for this year). We’d love to see you!

Heading Off to Richmond and RavenCon This Weekend

This Saturday and Sunday, I’ll be in Richmond, Virginia for my third year of RavenCon. Here are the specs:

RavenCon 2012
Holiday Inn Koger Center
1021 Koger Center Blvd,
North Chesterfield, VA 23235
(804) 379-3800
Weekend Rates
Adults (18 and up):
$35 by 03-30-12
$40 at the door
Young Adults
(12-17): $15
Children (11 and under):FREE
Day Rates
Friday: $15
Saturday: $25
Sunday: $15
*10% discount on rates with Military ID or Student/College ID

And here is my schedule:

Saturday, 4/14, 11:00 AM: Amazon vs. Independent Publishers Group (moderating), with Kate Palk, Lelia Taylor, Austin Comacho, Denise Comacho, and Jim Blanton

Saturday, 4/14, 12 noon: Signing in the dealers’ room

Sunday, 4/15, 10:00 AM: Writing for Tweens (moderating), with A. J. Hartley, Lelia Taylor, Davey Beauchamp, Pamela K. Kinney, and J. M. Lee

Sunday, 4/15, 12 noon: Steampunk as Alternate History, with Charles E. Gannon (moderating), Day Al-Mohamed, Michelle D. Sonnier, Scott M. Baker, and Lee Champion

Sunday, 4/15, 1:00 PM: Zombie vs. Robots, with Ahlen Moin (moderating), and Scott M. Baker

That panel on Amazon versus the Independent Publishers Group should be an interesting one. I’ll likely have one or two of my boys with me on Saturday; maybe Sunday, too. Hope to see many of my friends there!

A Story from My Fannish Youth: Sheepish Labyrinth

Most writers I know are compulsive recyclers — of words. I always save the “out-takes” of my novels, scenes or bits of dialogue that I like (sometimes like a lot), but that I’ve cut for reasons of length or because they seem superfluous to the story at hand. There’s always a chance that I may reuse that scene, minor character, setting or monologue or dialogue exchange in some future novel or story. I remember using a number of bits and pieces I cut out of Fat White Vampire Blues in Bride of the Fat White Vampire, and major chunks of a long short story, “Relics” (which I’ll eventually get around to posting on this site), ended up as parts of the Miami Beach chapters in The Good Humor Man, or, Calorie 3501.

My most recent bit of recycling sent me back to my earliest publishing effort, a fanzine called The Dragon Reader that a group of buddies and I put out in August, 1980 when we were between our sophomore and junior years in high school. I’m presently writing a short story to submit to one of Claude Lalumiere’s upcoming anthologies, Bibliotheca Fantastica (“stories having to do with lost, rare, weird, or imaginary books, or any aspect of book history or book culture, past, present, future, or uchronic”). The first story I wrote with the intention of submitting to Biblioteca Fantastica, “The Velveteen Ebook,” ended up turning into what might be marketed as that odd bird, a children’s chapter book aimed at adult readers. I still wanted to submit a story to Claude, however, and I happened to remember a very old story of mine, one of my first, that I’d written when I was fourteen. I didn’t want to submit that entire story (called “Cliffside”) to Claude, but I wanted to use a part of it as a fragment of a story within a new story, about a middle-aged writer on the verge of giving up, who is confronted with his teenaged son’s girlfriend, an aspiring fantasy writer who is every bit as good as he was at her age… maybe far better.

Anyway, while cribbing from “Cliffside” in that 32 year-old fanzine of mine, I came across a much shorter piece that I actually like a whole lot better than “Cliffside” (although back in 1980, soon after I’d written the pair of stories, I thought “Cliffside” was a masterpiece and “Sheepish Labyrinth,” the story I reprint below, was small beer in comparison). “Sheepish Labyrinth” was the result of a writing exercise that my pals Larry Lipkin and Preston Plous and I engaged in during one of what we called our Write-a-thons, all-night writing and science fiction role-playing sessions we’d put on at one of our houses sometime between our eighth and tenth grade years. This particular writing exercise, the noun-adjective exercise, to the best of my knowledge, was invented by Ursula K. Le Guin; in any case, I borrowed the technique from her book of writing exercise stories, The Altered I: Ursula K. Le Guin’s Science Fiction Writing Workshop.

It’s very simple (and surprisingly effective for producing new ideas). You and your friends write up lists of 30-40 nouns and 30-40 adjectives, the more colorful, the better. Then cut each word out, fold them in half, and put each in one of two hats, a nouns hat and an adjectives hat. Each writer picks out three pairs of nouns and adjectives. You then have to write a story based around a title utilizing one of your word pairs.

My noun was “labyrinth.” My adjective was “sheepish.” This is the story I wrote that night (amazingly, without so much as a sip of coffee, because I didn’t drink coffee back then… ah, the boundless energy of youth!).
_____________________________________________________________________________

Sheepish Labyrinth

* * * *

There it walks. A solid wind blowing by from places unimaginable, carrying sounds and other ripples in its current — click, clack, click, clack, its heels striking me, the sound rebounding. Another little man. Another little man and another little flickering shadow, the dark outline creeping warily across my floor. They’re an odd pair, the shadow and the man; the shadow creeping bolder now, only to leap to its protective master when I threaten to blot it out; the man walking hurriedly across me, unaware of its brother’s plight.

Where from this time? I do not know. It moves, it seems to live, in a fashion; surely then it is from Somewhere. I am me; that which is Outside is not. Of me the man is not, being neither floor, nor wall, nor even air; thus the man must be from Somewhere Outside.

Does it matter? It is in me, and it is warm. Its feet tickle my floor, and my walls are dampened by its breath. Dampness is strange, yet not unpleasant strange… little drops, many little men walking my walls… The man turns one of my corners, and then another, and another. It is walking in a circle. Little man, will you never find my end? I growl a bit, and its leg wobble. I am hungry. I growl again, and it begins to move faster — run. Its second layer — clothes? — flails out behind it, and sets of creases form and disappear and change shape. Its face — no, her face, her face, yes — too changes, from light to glowing darkish, from tan to white to crimson. Little blotches appear — how wonderful, how different from Outside, always black.

I growl and heave, and she falls. A deep red flows from the middle of her face and slowly follows the creases, and fills the pores. Little lines appear in the whites of her eyes. I want to watch, but I am hungry. An empty place in me rumbles, wanting to be filled — I feel the emptiness; yet I am not vacant. Perhaps I should pull myself inwards, and the man and I could fill the space, and stop the crying. But to have to push, and pull, and push…

The little man has gotten up. She leaves red on my floor, and I am happy. I am happy and I am hungry, but I will make the empty place wait. I will rest from heaving, and I will watch the man. My empty place screams, and I tremble at the feel of it. I tremble, I cringe, yet with the fear there is another — a… a joy. It is the man. She runs, not down my passages, but towards my walls. Again the strangeness (a cause and effect that should not be) — my fear was the instrument of the joy, for in my very trembling I had forced an opening, a hole in myself, and it is towards this hole that the man runs. She runs, yet it is unlike the time before; she runs with joy, joy and something beyond joy, a joy beyond joy and beyond my very knowing, a happiness, a flight — a love, a love for… for Life itself. She runs, and her body, her feet, are strangely warm, and the warmth in her feet melts them into my floor. I swell with added essence, and she obliges me, wave after wave of joyful emotion flooding her senses, bloating her, swirling about our feet/floor, growing, spreading even to the empty place, until, at last, together we fill me.

Filled, fullness… to be unalone, to be… whole? Whole. Hole-whole. Hole in me opens her joy, binding us, making me… whole. A circle, a closed line, that directs my passages and, seemingly, the flow of time’s events. Flow, drift; something’s floating by, drifting in… sound? No, sound touches, tingles… but it is sound, sound and seeing; sound without feel… seeing without light… thought. Thought: a blue whale is swimming in a gold-rimmed, pink bathtub. This cannot be. But why? Perhaps because whales are big, and no bathtub, even if gold-rimmed and pink, could hold one. Yet I saw it; it was so in my thought… thought… sense without feel, without light, without reality… Perhaps thoughts are unreal?

And what do I know of whales? Until an instant ago, whales did not exist; yet I think them, I know them — blue-black immensities, drifting contentedly through dark, chilled oceans; oceans like mountains of moisture, pleasant, strange dampness… little drops, little drops walking my walls, born of the breath of the man… breathing out drops… thinking out… whales. Breathing out; thinking out — a giving. Sharing. The whales are hers, and now they are mine, too. She is sharing with me. What was the difference between clear droplets and a redness left on my floor… but she knows… and I know, too… She is sharing with me! Light and darkness, the lonely ends of sight, they’re not alone, even as I’m not alone, the vastness between them is filled with color, color… A she and a he, so separate, so alone, join together, to birth another out of abandoned loneliness… Clothes, clothes to keep the cold out… Warmth, joy, love… love… hole. The hole, mine to share, which gave her joy… the man… she is still running… running away… but we… we are joined, I thought it, I saw it in my thought… thought… thoughts are… unreal… why

Stay; stay, little man, share the warmth, and together…

Now she is Outside, and I am empty once more. The empty place gathers up its voice to scream again. The deserted redness sinks into my floor, and with it a last glimmer of happiness. The scream unleashes itself, and I await another little man.

Appearing at Borderlands Books in San Francisco

My day job is sending me to San Francisco this week to support a couple of days of computer training. This’ll be my first opportunity to visit San Francisco, home to lots of Beat Generation history and many, many albums’ worth of classic West Coast jazz (as well as one of Ray Harryhausen’s early monster classics, It Came From Beneath the Sea).

My good friends at Tachyon Publications set me up for an informal book signing at Borderlands Books on Wednesday evening. I’ve met the nice folks from Borderlands Books before, but at conventions (pretty sure I chatted with them and shopped their wares at the 2010 NASFiC in Raleigh, North Carolina), never at their store.

Book Signing and Meet-and-Greet at Borderland Books
Wednesday, March 7, 2012, 7:00-9:00 pm
866 Valencia Street, San Francisco, California
(415) 824-8203

I hope a few of you will be able to drop by on Wednesday, or have friends in the San Francisco area to whom you could pass along the word. I’ll be staying at the Hilton in the Financial District, right next to Chinatown, not far from the waterfront, and only about four or five blocks away from City Light Books and Cafe’ Vesuvio, two classic Beat hangouts. Although it’s never easy to be apart from my family, I’m really looking forward to the trip and to seeing places that, until now, I’ve only read about (not just the Beat spots, but also Philip Marlowe’s haunts in The Maltese Falcon). Thanks, work!

Great Kids’ Books from MystiCon

Danny Birt, doing his heroic thing

My family and I really enjoyed attending MystiCon in Roanoke, Virginia this past weekend. It’s very gratifying to me to be able to say this, considering that the volunteer who was scheduled to run most of the children’s activities track got sick prior to the con, and those activities had to be canceled. Even so, my kids were very welcome in the dealers’ room, the con hospitality suite, and (most important to them) the video gaming room, which featured various games and gaming consoles going all the way back to the 1980s.

In fact, my best memory of the con, apart from two terrific (but sparsely attended) panels on Sunday, is of the Saturday night children’s story hour in front of the hotel’s fireplace in the lobby. Alethea Kontis and Deborah Smith Ford read from their picture books to a very appreciative audience of about eight children (three of whom were my boys), who sat on pillows in front of the fire and were quite vocal with their reactions and questions. After the story telling was over, a kind (and incredibly patient) con organizer wandered over with a beginners’ level fantasy board game and taught the kids how to play. Even my five-year-old, Judah, caught on and was very engaged in playing. Asher, my seven-year-old, got a little too overly enthusiastic on a couple of occasions and knocked over the playing pieces, but the man organizing the game took this in his stride (which is more than I could’ve accomplished – after the second mishap, I would’ve exiled Asher to the far side of the lobby).

Writer/actress/teacher Deborah Smith Ford

I remarked to another parent (who, like me, enjoyed being able to lean back and watch other adults entertain and educate our kids), “There’s the future of fandom, right there, sitting on those pillows. If we can do a good enough job of showing the kids a good time at conventions, making cons events the kids want to go back to again and again, then we can be reasonably assured that we’ll still have conventions to go to thirty years from now.”

A number of conventions that I’ve attended in the past few years have catered to the needs and interests of young children. I think this is a marvelous and healthy development. As a parent, I really enjoy being able to take my kids with me to conventions and knowing they won’t be bored out of their minds (and constantly bugging me to entertain them). As a writer for multiple age groups, I appreciate that so many folks are making a concentrated effort to make reading a fun activity and offer science fiction and fantasy books as desirable acquisitions for young people (who, we all hope, will grow from young readers to teen readers to adult readers). As a fan, I’m gratified (and relieved) that fandom appears to be making a good effort to avoid becoming extinct (by pushing back against what has been called “the graying of fandom” – not that there’s anything at all wrong with senior citizen fans, many of whom I love to death and who provide much of the best audience participation at panel discussions, but conventions need to have a good mix of ages involved if they are to survive).

For those of you who may be looking for great new (or old) books for your kids, or who just like children’s books, here are some of the wonderful books my boys and I were exposed to at MystiCon.

Alethea Kontis is an absolute natural when it comes to interacting with children. Kids just gravitate toward her (adults, too, for that matter; warmth and genuineness count for a lot). She sold out of her first picture book, Alphabet Oops! prior to the story hour. So she read from her second picture book, Alphabet Oops! H is for Halloween, which, given my boys’ enjoyment of monster movies and all things monster-related, I think would’ve been a good choice in any case. Her book is chock-full of charming illustrations (including hidden characters on each page which young readers are encouraged to find), and her story of the various letters of the alphabet all competing to stand for various symbols of Halloween certainly kept my kids’ attention. Any parent looking for a picture book for a young child who likes monsters can’t go wrong with this one.

MystiCon was the first time I had the pleasure of meeting Deborah Smith Ford, an actress, teacher, and writer from Florida. Things got a bit chaotic in the hotel lobby midway through the children’s story hour (not due to the kids, but to a bunch of adults who congregated there and were oblivious to the authors trying to read to little ears). But Levi, my oldest, wanted very much to hear Deborah’s book, so she very obligingly gave him a one-on-one reading of her picture book, The Little Apple, which is about her own upbringing on a farm. Levi and Deborah hit it off so well that she made him a present of her book, which came with an audio CD that features songs by sound-alikes of Johnny and June Cash. We haven’t had a chance yet to listen to the audio CD, but I’m looking forward to it (especially given that I’m a fan of the Cashes’ music).

Danny Birt is a fellow Loyola University of New Orleans grad and an all-around good guy. His book, Between a Roc and a Hard Place, is a chapter book aimed at middle school readers. I’ve heard him read excerpts from his tale of a baby dragon and enjoyed what I heard very much. Very charming and sweet. So I had my oldest son, Levi, aged 8, look at the book to see if it is something he can read and would be interested in. Affirmative on both questions! Danny very kindly inscribed a copy for him.

The proprietor of Oreilis Books, a used books shop that operates online and at conventions, is very interested in catering to the reading needs of young readers. I discovered to my delight that she had a copy of Evelyn Sibley Lampman’s 1955 classic children’s chapter book, The Shy Stegosaurus of Cricket Creek. Another parent was considering buying it for his seven-year-old son, but that kid ended up picking out another couple of books, so I snatched up the Lampman as soon as he put it down.

I’ve never read The Shy Stegosaurus of Cricket Creek, but when I was about Levi’s age, my mom bought me a copy of the sequel, The Shy Stegosaurus of Indian Springs, which I remember simply loving and reading over and over again. (The shy stegosaurus of the title, George, was always apologizing to his young human friends for the very small size of his brain and his limited intellect; he was an endearing character.) I thought I’d kept my old hardback copy, and not too long ago I went looking for it, hoping to give it to Levi. However, in one of my many moves over the years, I either gave it away or lost it (although I managed to hang onto some of my other favorite books from childhood, including J. B. Priestley’s Snoggle a precursor of Steven Spielberg’s E.T., and my collection of Alfred Hitchcock’s oversized anthologies for young people). So I was thrilled to find a copy of the first book to give to Levi and his younger brothers (I’ll bet Judah, the dinosaur and Japanese monster fan, will be the book’s biggest enthusiast in our household). The Shy Stegosaurus of Cricket Creek has been reprinted fairly recently by Purple House Press, so it shouldn’t be that hard to find, if you know a little dinosaur-lover who needs a wonderful chapter book to read.

My List of Modern Science Fiction Classics

What makes a work a “classic?” More specifically, what make a work of science fiction or fantasy a “classic?”

I attended MystiCon in Roanoke, Virginia this past weekend and had an opportunity to ask myself these questions (the reason being that I was assigned to participate in a panel called “Modern SF Classics”). The con programmers who put together the panel defined “modern” as a work having been published in 1980 or later. In pulling together a list, I decided not to include any books that had been published within the last ten years (I also limited myself to novels, since including short fiction would stretch the discussion far beyond what could be covered in an hour). I reasoned that part of being a “classic” is having stood the test of time; a number of books which have been published since 2001 may end up entering the canon of essential science fiction and fantasy works, but it is simply too early to tell. This delineation on my part put a number of currently prominent writers’ works off my list, including all books by China Mieville, Cory Doctorow, John Scalzi, and Charles Stross (so if you are fans of these folks, check back with me in another decade or so for my updated list).

The con programmers’ stipulation of 1980 as a starting point seemed arbitrary, until I had compiled the contents of my list and realized who wasn’t on it. 1980, it turns out, represented a generational shift in the ranks of those science fiction and fantasy writers who were turning out career-defining and genre-defining works. My list doesn’t contain any post-1979 works by any writers who came to prominence during the “magazine years” of science fiction, those decades when the most vital and essential science fiction was to be found in the pages of periodicals such as Astounding, Galaxy, Worlds of If, or The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction rather than hardback or paperback books (or online). My list doesn’t include any books, for example, by Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Frederik Pohl (who came the closest to being included on the list, having published several of his classic novels in the late 1970s), Robert Sheckley, or Robert Silverberg. All of their most essential books were published prior to 1980. In contrast, all of the writers included on my list have made their bones primarily with hardback or paperback originals, rather than works published in monthly or bimonthly periodicals.

So, returning to my original question, what is it that makes a work of science fiction or fantasy a classic? I mentioned staying power, the test of time. Apart from a work’s popularity at the time of its original publication, has it managed to fairly consistently stay in print? Do readers continue to seek it out, even a decade or more after its first appearance? Has it been cited by critics as a noteworthy book or one which has been influential in the field’s subsequent development? Do current writers have the work in mind as they write their own books, either consciously or subconsciously, amplifying the earlier work’s themes and innovations, or reacting against them? (One of my fellow panelists suggested another criterion for defining a work as a classic, which is whether non-geeks recognize it when it is mentioned in casual conversation; but I think this tends to favor books which have the fortune or misfortune of being adapted into motion pictures or television series, more a marker of notoriety – or luck — than of quality or influence.)

Science fiction and fantasy, more so than other types of literature, are the product of long-distance conversations which may occur over timespans of decades or even centuries. Many works in the field may be considered to be responses to earlier works. Let’s take the subject matter of robots and artificial intelligence as an example. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley tossed the ball into the air with her Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus (1818). Carel Kapek returned her serve a century later, in 1920, with his play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). Then the ball was most ably fielded by Issac Asimov with his Robot stories, collected as I, Robot (1950). More recent parries and volleys have included those by Brian Aldiss (“Super-Toys Last All Summer Long,” 1969) and David Gerrold (When Harlie Was One, 1972), to list just two of dozens of notable examples.

So another aspect of judging a work of science fiction or fantasy a classic is how ably and how significantly it has added to the ongoing conversation which sustains these genres over time.

I selected my choices for various reasons. Some I included because they promulgated a new, vital sub-genre of works (such as Neuromancer — cyberpunk – and The Anubis Gates — steampunk – and The Time Ships — the New Space Opera), others because they added fresh perspectives to established sub-genres and headed them in new directions (such as When Gravity Fails and Cryptonomicon). Some I listed because they introduced new concepts into the science fictional discussion (such as Blood Music did with nanotechnology). Others got the nod because they have been consistent best-sellers over long periods of time, proving their enduring attraction to successive generations of readers (such as Ender’s Game and Brin’s “Uplift War” series), or because their craft has been judged to be of such high quality that they have served as models and aspirations for writers who have read them (such as Little, Big and The Book of the New Sun quartet).

Without further ado, here is my list of modern science fiction and fantasy classics, listed in reverse order of publication.

Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson (1999)
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (1996)
The Time Ships by Stephen Baxter (1995)
Doomsday Book by Connie Willis (1992)
Hyperion by Dan Simmons (1989)
When Gravity Fails by George Alec Effinger (1986)
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (1985)
Blood Music by Greg Bear (1985)
Neuromancer by William Gibson (1984)
Startide Rising by David Brin (1983)
The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers (1983)
Little, Big by John Crowley (1981)
The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe (4 volumes, 1980-83)

Are there any glaring omissions on my list? Please feel free to let me know!

Appearances This Week

This week, February 20-26, 2012, will be a busy one for me. I’ve got a couple of appearances scheduled in the Central Virginia area.

James Rivers Writers, the Writing Show:
Sweet Indulgences: Writing Food, Drink, and Romance

Thursday, February 23, 2012, 6:30-8:30 pm
The Pavilion Room
The Children’s Museum
2626 West Broad Street, Richmond, Virginia
$10 in advance
$12 at the door
$5 students at the door

I’ll be appearing on a panel with writers Kit Wilkinson and Michele Young-Stone, talking about the art of writing oral indulgences in fiction and non-fiction. Books will be available for purchase. This is my first event with the James River Writers organization. Looking forward to it! It’s a bit different from the events I’m usually involved in.

And just a couple of days later, my family and I will be heading south again, this time to Roanoke…

MystiCon, February 24-26, 2012
Tanglewood Holiday Inn
Roanoke, Virginia

The original MystiCon took place back in 1980, and the name was revived for a new convention in 2011, which I attended. Obviously, I liked it, since I’m heading back. Great con staff with lots of enthusiasm and heapings of welcome. Plus, the Shenandoah Valley is a wonderful region to explore.

I’ll be attending on Saturday and Sunday. Here’s my schedule of appearances:

Saturday, 2/25, 4:00 PM: I’ll be moderating “What’s with the Goggles?” a panel on the history and character archetypes of Steampunk

Saturday, 2/25, 6:00 PM: I’ll be doing a brief reading at a Koffee Klatch

Saturday, 2/25, 10:00 PM: I’ll be a panelist on “Horrors Unknown,” a discussion of lesser-known masters of horror

Sunday, 2/26, 9:00 AM: I’ll be a panelist on “Modern Classics,” a discussion of SF and fantasy books written since the 1980s which should be considered part of the speculative fiction canon (this being a 9 AM panel on a Sunday morning, I’ve got a feeling I’ll be hanging out with the other panelists, shooting the breeze and drinking coffee while we wait for attendees nursing hangovers to arrive)

Sunday, 2/26, 10:00 AM: I’ll be signing my books and happy/eager to chat

Sunday, 2/26, 1:00 PM: I’ll be moderating “Kids Literature Past Harry Potter,” a discussion of some outstanding middle grades and young adult science fiction and fantasy which you may have overlooked

So, if you live in the Richmond or Roanoke areas or plan to be traveling through the region later this week, please drop into one of these events and say hello!

Traveling About the Country Some

Just a mini-post this time around. I learned at work today that I’ll be doing some training-related traveling over the next couple of months. (Always nice to have good ol’ Uncle Sam pay for my gallivanting!) I’ll be in New York City from February 6-9, in New Orleans from February 13-16, and in San Francisco (where I’ve never traveled before) from March 5-8. I sure hope I’ll be able to see some of my science fiction/fantasy and Facebook friends while I’m out and about. I’ve already made plans to see the Tachyon Publications gang in San Francisco while I’m there. I know I missed a few of my New Orleans friends when I was there a couple of months ago for CONtraflow, so I hope to catch up with them this time.

I’ll post more information as it comes available. My friends at Tachyon may be setting up a reading or signing for me at one of the San Francisco SF/fantasy bookstores. If nothing else, at least I should finally be able to set foot in the famous City Lights Bookstore…

Update, 1/27/2012: Ah, my trip to New York City has been canceled for budgetary reasons. Bummer. I’ll just have to find some other excuse to get up that way soon.

MarsCon 2012 Report

The family and I enjoyed a wonderful weekend at MarsCon… which came with an unfortunate postscript. But more on that later. This was a very well-run convention which has grown popular enough that it will be moving to a larger venue next year. This year’s theme was The End of the World, and the organizers certainly went all out to properly “theme” the hotel. Zombies and their ilk were everywhere — in the lobby, in the halls, popping out of trash cans and bio-hazard barrels, or caged like moldering zoo exhibits. Zombies also made up by far the most popular category of hall costumes, with about ten percent of the con-goers arriving “zombified” and looking like they’d stepped straight out of one of Robert Kirkman’s graphic novels or TV shows. There are many, many ways to end the world, of course; costumers could have dressed up as radioactive mutants, rogue asteroids, giant insects, free-floating Ebola germs, flesh-eating bacteria, or clouds of carbon dioxide (if they’re of an Al Gore turn of mind). But zombies are “in” this year, and so Zombie Apocalypse was the disaster du jour.

Didn't have my camera with me (darn it), but this is a close approximation of the Zatanna I saw at the con

My one disappointment was that I forgot my camera at home. Dara tried using her cell phone in its stead, but none of the phone pics came out very good. Aside from all the zombies and zombie paraphernalia, I spotted several other terrific hall costumes I wouldn’t have minded shooting photos of. One young(? – can’t be absolutely sure, since the outfit completely covered him) man dressed as a splendid-looking Wesley Dodd Sandman from Sandman Mystery Theater, one of my favorite comic book series from the last twenty years. My partially empty two hours spent in the Autograph Armageddon group signing session (which were somewhat enlivened by ten-minute readings performed by some of the signers) got a bit of a lift from an alluringly chubby Zatanna who paraded herself (with boyfriend in tow) at the opposite end of the hall for a few moments. No fishnet stockings, though. Perhaps she had a hard time finding them in her size. Wish I’d had my camera… [Update: I took a look at a couple of other con-goers’ photos on Facebook, and the attractive young lady in question was, in fact, wearing fishnets. My bad. I guess my eyes aren’t what they used to be, and, after all, she was parading herself on the far side of a very large room…]

My biggest tip of the hat goes out to those MarsCon folks who organized the children’s activities. My boys simply had no time to get bored. From the time we arrived on Saturday morning to the time we left on Sunday afternoon, they had things to do (which made me feel a whole lot less guilty about asking Dara to look after them while I attended to programming). As soon as we got to the con, Levi began building a Soda Can Robot (with the very welcome assistance of a local school teacher who had just put another one together and so who knew what she was doing, unlike yours truly), while his brothers built Star Wars spaceships out of Lego blocks. Then it was time for a pair of shows. Craig Adams and Debra Burrell are the husband-and-wife team behind the Fuzz and Stuffing Puppets. They put on a delightful half-hour show called “Attack of the Giant Carrot” which my three boys simply adored; the puppeteers included a reference to the 1951 classic SF film, The Thing from Another World, to give a laugh to old Dad, too. I had to miss the next show, “The Hysterically Correct Pirate Show,” which the boys also thought was the bees’ knees (how’s that for an anachronistic use of slang?).

For nearly as long as I’ve been attending SF conventions, certainly during the past decade (when I’ve been going as a professional), I’ve been hearing doomsayers foretell the end of the con circuit due to “the graying of fandom.” It’s a truism, of course, that any culture which fails to reproduce itself will eventually die out. So I was extremely encouraged to see so many little kids and their parents at MarsCon, this year and last (this year even more than last, happily). This infusion helps the con scene in multiple ways. Parents are a lot more likely to attend (and to enjoy themselves) if their children’s interests are catered to. And if kids attend conventions when they are small (and have a wonderful time), they are a lot more likely to continue attending at teenagers, then as adults. It’s very possible that we’ve witnessed the future organizers of MarsCon — say, of MarsCon 2035 — running around in their Batman or Wonder Woman Underoos here at MarsCon 2012.

All of the panels I participated in ran smoothly and were well attended (not something I can report about every con I go to). “Undead Overload?” with Keith DeCandido and Adam Seats was one of the more entertaining vampires/zombies panels I’ve been involved in during the last couple of years. As moderator, I separated out the undead into four quadrants: vampires, zombies, mummies, and reanimated corpses (Frankenstein monsters). I suggested that maybe the notion of “undead overload” was due to too many vampires and zombies and a comparative dearth in the last ten years of mummies and reanimated corpses. We also talked about how the intense competition to create ever-new and appealing variations of the hot “monster du jour” often leads to that creature “jumping the shark,” or at least being transformed into something quite unlike its original self. I opined that Stephenie Myers’ vampires are really creatures of Fairie, and George Romero’s zombies (and those of his imitators) are actually ghouls.

My favorite panel of the weekend, as I knew it would be, was “Masterworks of Apocalyptic Fiction” with the inimitable Bud Webster and Baen editor Laura Haywood Cory. Bud is tremendously fun to panel with because, like our mutual friend Barry Malzberg, he is a walking encyclopedia of the science fiction genre. The three of us had a grand old time talking over such disaster classics as J. G. Ballard’s cataclysm cycle, Nevile Shute’s On the Beach (a “cozy apocalypse” I called it), Larry Niven’s Lucifer’s Hammer, and Thomas Disch’s inventively grim The Genocides. Classic end-of-the-world films got some love, too, including The World, the Flesh, and the Devil, The Omega Man, the Planet of the Apes cycle, and Roger Corman’s Teenaged Caveman (okay, not a classic, but I threw it in, anyway). My coup of the weekend, though, may have been getting Laura seriously thinking about having Baen republish Ward Moore’s neglected “comic apocalypse” classic novel, Greener Than You Think.

According to the program book, S. M. Stirling, Danny Birt, Leona Wisoker and I were supposed to be creative on a Sunday morning with “Starting at the End: MarsCon Authors Build an Apocalyptic Story Live.” However, even after a few cups of coffee, I think none of us were very much up to the challenge, so Steve Stirling, our fearless moderator, instead led us through a second round of “Masterworks of Apocalyptic Fiction,” which suited me just fine, as I got to talk Ballard and Shute again (and one can never talk enough Ballard and Shute).

Having the family along, I didn’t get as much of a chance to chat with fellow attendees as I usually do, but I still squeezed in opportunities to show off my gang to as many of my friends as I could. Levi had a chance to talk science fiction books with Bud Webster, as I’d hoped he would. It was neat to talk with Danny Birt and Leona Wisoker, no matter how briefly. And I had my first opportunity to talk with Steve and Jan Stirling since the “Hurricane Katrina” Bubonicon of 2005, and I was able to share with them the thank-you I posted to them for all their post-storm support as the postscript to my book The Good Humor Man, or, Calorie 3501. They didn’t get a chance to see Levi and Asher, though, which was a shame, since the last time they’d seen them, Levi had been just under two and Asher had been six months old.

I mentioned an unfortunate postscript to the con. Apparently, my kids and I did not pay enough attention to the many warning signs at the con which told us to beware of the zombie virus, because we inadvertently brought it home with us. Levi came down with the stomach flu late Sunday night. He vomited all over his bed and all over his brothers, then spent the rest of the evening shooting foul substances out both ends. I prayed, as did Dara, that he had swallowed an amoeba or something bacterial, rather than having picked up a virus, since the former would be less contagious. Unfortunately, a virus it was, since less than forty-eight hours later, earlier today, first Judah and then Asher began the same vile cycle.

So Dara and I are staying up tonight, keeping a vigil over the boys. Poor Dara has already had to do eight loads of laundry in just the past thirty-six hours. We’re taking shifts staying in the boys’ room, trash pail at the ready. My shift comes next… It may be years before poor, traumatized Dara lets me take the boys to a con again.

Heading on Down to MarsCon

This Saturday and Sunday, January 14-15, my family and I will be attending MarsCon in Williamsburg, Virginia (to be held at the Holiday Inn Patriot). I guested at MarsCon for the first time last year and thoroughly enjoyed myself. Not only was it a well-run, friendly con with lots of good food, but the surrounding area is loaded with restaurants, coffeehouses, and interesting attractions. So I really wanted to bring the whole gang this year, and the timing worked out well. Not only that, but the con has an expanded track of children’s programming this year, which will be great for Levi, Asher, and Judah (all of whom adore a good arts and crafts project or puppet show). Plus, the place we’re staying, the Comfort Inn down the road from the Holiday Inn Patriot, has an indoor pool. The boys are totally stoked about the thought of going swimming (when it isn’t summer).

Here are the panels and events I’ll be taking part in (the theme of this year’s MarsCon is The End of the World, which I think is swell):

Saturday, January 14th, noon to 1 p.m., Room 103

Undead Overload?

Are there too many zombies? Is it time for a vam-purge? How do we keep the corpse fresh? Keith DeCandido, Andrew Fox, and Adam Seats debate one of SF, fantasy, and horror’s hottest phenomena. Come help them decide if some of the films, fiction, and other zombie-rama and drac attacks would be better left undead.

Saturday, January 14th, 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Patriot Ballroom

Autograph Armageddon

Indulge your inner fan and get signatures from MarsCon’s fantastic 2012 lineup of authors. Hear them read samples of their work while you wait in line. Join GOH S. M. Stirling and many other MarsCon authors for two hours of our featured signing event. Last line entry 2:45 p.m., limit of 3 signatures per pass through line for GOH. With Chris Berman, Danny Birt, Keith DeCandido, Andrew Fox, Pamela K. Kinney, James Mascia, Peter Prellwitz, Marina Sergeyeva, Steve White, and Leona Wisoker.

Saturday, January 14th, 3-4 p.m., Richardson Board Room

Masterworks of Apocalyptic Fiction

Writers have been destroying the world in terrible scenarios or pitting plucky survivors defiantly against the end for years now. Join our panel of writers and editors—Laura Haywood Cory, Andrew Fox, and Bud Webster—as they highlight some of their favorites and put together an apocalyptic fiction hall of fame with help from the audience.

Sunday, January 15th, 11 a.m.-noon, Patriot Ballroom

Starting at the End: MarsCon Authors Build an Apocalyptic Story Live

Join GOH S. M. Stirling and writers Danny Birt, Andrew Fox, and Leona Wisoker as they outline an original apocalyptic tale before your eyes. You’ll get insight into how they go about creating an original end for the world, build an interesting set of characters, find conflict, and construct a believable apocalyptic world.

MarsCon’s programming looks really terrific this year. A fun mix of serious and not-so-serious apocalyptic discussion panels, arts programming, independent films, concerts, and assorted goofy stuff. Plus, several of my favorite people will be attending. I always love chatting with Bud Webster, he of the encyclopedic knowledge of classic SF anthologies, and browsing through his collection of vintage paperbacks for sale. Also, my old friends S. M. (Steve) and Jan Stirling will be coming in from New Mexico. I haven’t seen Steve and Jan since the last time Dara and I attended Bubonicon in Albuquerque, the weekend of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Steve and Jan were very accommodating to my family and me while we were in extremis following the storm, when we learned we would be unable to go home to New Orleans for an unknown period of time. For close to a month I feared I had lost all of my computers and soft copies of my novels and stories. Steve was kind enough to send me an older laptop of his that he was no longer using, an exceedingly kind gesture I’ll never forget.

So the weekend promises to be a fun one! I hope to see some of my readers and friends at the con (who will have an opportunity to see how big my boys have gotten).

Training the Next Generation of SF Geeks: an Intergenerational Case Study

My gateway to the heroes of comics' Golden Age, courtesy of my stepdad and Jules Feiffer

Any culture that fails to train its young in its traditions is doomed to extinction. The culture of science fiction geekdom is no exception. Many SF geeks have come into their geekhood entirely on their own, sometimes in clear opposition to their parents’ preferences (most of the Futurians, for example, needed to get away from their families in order to come into their full geekhood). Yet many others (myself included) have benefitted from the support and encouragement of a geek (or partial geek, or proto-geek) parent. SF geek culture has now been with us long enough that grandparents can share it with their grandchildren (especially if it is Flash Gordon serials or Astounding Science Fiction pulps or EC horror comics that are the artifacts being passed on).

My stepdad was my initial mentor in geekdom, although I’m sure he didn’t think about in those terms (my training in geekhood began in the late 1960s, but the term “geek” did not begin taking on anything approaching a positive connotation until fairly recently, sometime during Bill Clinton’s term in office). He is a movie lover and for many years was an amateur movie maker (in the old days of Super-8 equipment; he never made the transition to digital media). During his twenties, he had nursed an ambition to go to Hollywood to work for Warner Brothers as an animator. He ended up a salesman instead, a very successful one, first of shoes and later of folding cardboard boxes. He and my mother both enjoyed science fiction and horror movies, so my earliest movie-going experiences were outings to the drive-in to see pictures including Destroy All Monsters (1968), The Return of Count Yorga (1971), Escape From the Planet of the Apes (1971), and Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster (1971). (Come to think of it, we saw an awful lot of movies at the drive-in in 1971.) He was a huge fan of old-time film actors, so the bookshelf in our living room was stocked with oversized volumes on the history of movies serials, classic films of Hollywood’s Golden Age (including the Universal monster movie cycle), and silent film comedy stars such as Charlie Chaplin and W. C. Fields. He also amassed a pretty big collection of Super-8 film shorts to show on his collapsible movie screen, including shorts by Chaplin, the Our Gang kids, and Laurel and Hardy, as well as compilations of coming attractions from Japanese kaiju giant monster films and 1950s Hollywood giant insect movies.

The book on his shelf that probably had the biggest impact on me, though, was Jules Feiffer’s The Great Comic Book Heroes (1965). I still have numerous passages virtually memorized (most especially Feiffer’s remembered glee as a young man when he read that psychologist Fredric Wertham had written in Seduction of the Innocent that Batman and Robin, in their civilian identities as Bruce Wayne and his ward Dick Grayson, could be said to be experiencing “a wish dream of two homosexuals living together;” Feiffer always hated Robin, so anyone who muddied Robin’s rep was okay by him). I passed hundreds of hours on my living room sofa with that book open on my lap. Feiffer presented a very personal memoir of what each of the classic characters of the Golden Age of Comic Books had meant to him during his childhood and teen years. His book generously provided me with origin stories or very early adventures of such figures as Superman, Batman, the Flash, the Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, Hawkman, the Spectre, Plastic Man, Captain Marvel, Captain America, the Sub-Mariner, the Human Torch, and the Spirit, in nearly all cases (with the exceptions of Superman and Batman) my very first exposure to the characters. My stepdad, noting my enthusiasm, followed up by taking me to my very first comic book and nostalgia convention, held in the Coconut Grove library, where I got to see a couple of chapters from Monogram’s The Adventures of Captain Marvel serial and page through a mimeographed reproduction of the famous Human Torch-Sub-Mariner epic battle from Marvel Mystery Comics.

The fact that my stepdad loved old monster movies and old comic book heroes made me want to love them, too; not that I needed too much encouragement in that direction, since I had discovered my love of dinosaurs, prehistoric life, and Greek and Norse mythology all on my own. One thing led to another. Novelizations of the Planet of the Apes films and TV shows proved to be my “entry drugs” to original science fiction novels and story collections by H. G. Wells, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and Robert Silverberg. A fondness for atomic apocalypse movies led to my picking up books on worldwide catastrophe by J. G. Ballard and John Christopher. The movie versions of The Shrinking Man and I Am Legend made me hunt down the original books by Richard Matheson. The same kid at summer camp who let me look at his dog-earred Iron Man comics also lent me a truly magical novel, The Circus of Dr. Lao by Charles G. Finney.

And thus was my career as a science fiction geek well and truly launched by the time I turned eight. That year I wrote my first short story, “Tyrann!”, a tale about a lonely little boy, his scientist father, the mechanical Tyrannosaurus the father builds as a companion for his son, and the gangsters who have evil plans for the scientist and his robot creation. The boys at school loved it, and I got the idea that writing stories and entertaining my peers was kind of fun.

One thing my stepdad didn’t do was pass on any relics of his own proto-geek childhood. Hardly anybody from his generation saved their comic books and pulp magazines (unless they were extremely obsessed with them). This, of course, is what makes those artifacts of the 1930s and 1940s so valuable – scarcity. Oh, the daydreams I had, though, as a child – “If only Dad had saved his Captain America comics!” I resolved at a very young age that I would save everything: all my comics, all my issues of Famous Monsters of Filmland, all my copies of Eerie and Creepy, and all of my science fiction paperbacks. No future son (or daughter) of mine would ever have to pine for the childhood stuff I had thrown away. I also considered the potential monetary value of the collectibles I would be passing on, figuring I would be doing my future children a great fiduciary favor.

Judah "Iron Man" Fox, celebrating his fifth birthday

Unfortunately, I proved to have an odd talent for buying comics which would never go up in value and for passing up those comics which would someday be worth real money. I distinctly recall seeing all the early issues of The All-New, All-Different X-Men on the carousel wire racks at my local convenience stores (Little General and 7-11) and turning up my nose at them, because the characters on the covers looked “too weird” (why I felt that way about the New X-Men I cannot currently fathom; after all, I eagerly purchased other comics with stranger heroes, such as Jack Kirby’s The Demon and Marv Wolfman’s The Tomb of Dracula, but I remember having a powerful aversion to the costumes worn by the New X-Men in their early adventures). Instead, I bought reprint comics like Marvel Triple Action, Marvel’s Greatest Comics, Monsters on the Prowl, and Creatures on the Loose; the adventures of short-run, failed characters like It! the Living Colossus, the Living Mummy, Man-Thing, Brother Voodoo, the Defenders (a bit more successful than the others on this list), the Invaders, the Golem, and Werewolf by Night; and a fairly full set of The Invincible Iron Man during the character’s worst run ever (excepting, perhaps, the much later Teen Tony issues), from about issue 35 to issue 90 or so. So I ended up with an accumulation of essentially worthless comics, boxes and boxes of them, from the 1970s to the 1990s. Worthless, that is, except for the reading pleasure they might provide a young person.

Over the past eight years, I’ve been blessed with three sons. How should I divide my childhood collection among the three of them, I’ve often wondered? Have them draw lots? Let them sort out the materials among themselves, according to their preferences, with me serving as referee? As things have turned out, this will not be an issue, surprisingly; two of the three appear to have very little interest in my old stuff.

Levi, my oldest, is a voracious reader, but he generally avoids comic books. He showed a mild interest in Silver Age Superman stories for a time, but that didn’t last. After I took him and his brothers to see Captain America: the First Avenger, we went to the comic book store next to the theater, and I offered to buy him any Captain America or Avengers comic he wanted. He wouldn’t bite; instead, he insisted I buy him the latest Wimpy Kid chapter book. The only comics or graphic novels he seems to be interested in are the Bone books. He is very interested in science, but blasé about dinosaurs. He shows very little interest in my collection of old horror movie videos. However, he is fascinated by astronomy and outer space, and most of the chapter books he likes to read (such as the Magic Treehouse and the Captain Underpants books) are essentially fantasy. So I have hopes that I’ll be able to steer him toward science fiction. Within the next year (he is currently in second grade) I plan to introduce him to the Heinlein juveniles, the Rick Riordan books, and eventually Ender’s Game. We’ll see how he takes to those. He is very opinionated and particular regarding what books he chooses to read, so I know I will only be able to suggest (and gently suggest, at that). The potential for an SF geek resides within him (“The Force is strong in this one…”). We shall see.

Asher, my middle child, on the other hand, appears to have little or no geek potential. His interests are decidedly mainstream American boy – he likes sports, race cars, and monster trucks. He enjoys superhero and science fiction movies and TV shows, but he mainly appreciates them for their action. He likes watching things explode and seeing giant robots beat on each other. He thought the last twenty minutes of X-Men: First Class were “awesome,” and he simply loved Real Steel. His favorite toys are his large collection of Hot Wheels cars. He is a pretty strong reader, but he won’t go out of his way to pick up a book. He gets bored when I try to read him Silver Age Superman stories (which Levi enjoys to an extent). His preferred books to look at are illustrated editions of The Guinness Book of World Records and any books on monster trucks.

So, I was at two strikes and one ball to go, so far as passing along my old comics and monster magazines to one of my offspring. Perhaps Judah, my youngest, sensed an opportunity, an unclaimed niche, a chance to beat out his brothers at snuggling up close to Daddy. Or maybe it’s all in the genes (could there be a specific geek chromosome)? In any case, with my final opportunity to reproduce myself as a young geek, I finally struck geek gold in Judah. Several years back, I bought a whole collection of plush Godzilla figures for Levi and Asher as Hanukkah gifts; on eBay, I found Godzilla, Minya, Rodan, Anguillis, Gigan, young Godzilla, Hedorah, King Kong, and Destroyah. These were gorgeous toys. Had they been available when I was a young boy, I would have wet my pants with excitement. But neither Levi nor Asher took to them. They sat on the edge of the boys’ bed for years, unplayed with, gathering dust and cat hair.

Judah with "The Deadly Mantis"

Then Judah decided he liked Godzilla movies. In fact, he loved Godzilla movies. Better still was to watch a Godzilla movie with toys that matched the monsters on screen. He expanded his palate to include a fondness for Gamera movies, too (and I happened to have a few Gamera toys lying around). He will watch any monster movie with his daddy, and he has a particular liking for giant insect movies. Like me, he can watch Tarantula over and over again. When I took him and his brothers to Dinosaur Land in White Post, Virginia, one of the statues there was of a ten-foot-tall praying mantis. I took a picture of the boys standing beneath its claws, and I posted the picture on my website, next to a photo from the 1957 monster movie The Deadly Mantis. Judah took a look at that photo and declared he simply had to have a Deadly Mantis toy. After looking far and wide, I managed to find a really nice praying mantis figurine at Le Jouet Toys down in New Orleans, and I bought it as a birthday gift for Judah. One event marking his fifth birthday celebration was a family viewing of The Deadly Mantis (a clean DVD print obtained from Netflix). Judah sat in bed between me and his brothers with his brand-new mantis toy in his fist, watching Craig Stevens, William Hopper, and Alix Talton deal with their bug problem. He is very disappointed that there has never been a Tarantula vs. the Deadly Mantis movie, or, even better, a Tarantula vs. Godzilla film. He has asked multiple times for me to buy him a Deadly Mantis costume to wear, and I’ve endeavored to explain that no one is likely to make a costume based on a giant bug movie from 1957 that hardly anyone remembers.

It’s not just monsters. He loves dinosaurs and superheroes, too. His favorite dinosaur (for the past few weeks, anyway) is Ankylosaurus, an armored dinosaur from the Cretaceous Period. When I told him that Anguillus from the Godzilla movies is an Ankylosaurus, he went and got his plastic figurine of the monster and asked why Anguillus doesn’t have a knob of bone at the end of his tail like a real Ankylosaurus would. The only reply I could come up with was “artistic license.” So he went and found a small, hollow rubber ball that he was able to insert on the end of Anguillus’ tail. Thus far, he doesn’t seem to have a favorite superhero. Between his dad’s old toys and action figures he has gotten as gifts or collected from McDonald’s or Burger King, he has amassed a pretty impressive set of Justice Society, Justice League, X-Men, and Avengers figures. His affection and loyalty shifts between characters and figures, depending on his mood and which toy happens to catch his eye. One day his favorite will be Banshee from the X-Men, and the next day it might be Captain America or Iron Man, and the day after that either Batman or the Golden Age Flash will have captured his fancy.

Scene from "The Deadly Mantis 2: Mantis in Manassas"

He’s still too young to pass along to him my old comics and issues of Famous Monsters of Filmland (I shudder to think what shape he would leave them in after tearing through them). I’ll probably wait until he turns eight. But that kid has a tremendous bequest coming his way. I can hardly wait to see his face on the day I pull out box after box after box of my old stuff from the basement.

For the time being, I’m as delighted as any proud Little League parent to have him sitting next to me and watching Ghidrah the Three Headed Monster or Tarantula, a rapt look of enjoyment on his face. I glance down at him, squirming with excitement while nestled in the nook of my arm, and think to myself with a glow of satisfaction, “That’s my boy!”

An Unpredictable (But Golden) Reward of Publishing

I’ve written elsewhere on this website about the personal rewards of the act of writing. Few things give me more pleasure than crafting a well-wrought metaphor or paragraph, brainstorming a delightfully appropriate plot development, watching as a character takes on a voice all his or her own and begins telling me where the book should head next, or coming to the end of a final chapter and knowing exactly what the final sentences of a book must be. I believe that if a researcher were to conduct a brain scan of me when I’m in the midst of such moments, the firing of my neurons and the hyperactivity of my serotonin would closely mimic well-documented brain activity during a “runner’s high” or following absorption of a powerful anti-depressant.

Apart from the rewards of writing, what about the rewards of publishing? I’ve also written in my blog that I believe “story” is a shared performance of at least two persons: the writer, and the reader, who must be seduced by the writer’s efforts into injecting his or her own memories, colorations, mental voices, and emotional responses into the act of story. Unless both actors, reader and writer, are giving their fullest energies to the shared performance of story, the gestalt does not achieve its full potential. Without publishing of some sort (which can be as basic as printing up extra copies for one’s workshop group to read), there are no readers, and the act of story remains incomplete. Yet publishing is often drudgery, involving tasks a writer either dislikes or feels far less competent at than the act of writing (such as marketing one’s work, either to agents or editors or directly to prospective readers; dealing with contractual or legal issues, and struggling through layers of bureaucracy to ensure one’s book doesn’t get “lost,” if working with a traditional publisher; learning the intricacies of document conversion to various e-formats and dealing with hired copy editors and cover designers, if self-publishing).

Those are the burdens of publishing. So what are the rewards of publishing? The obvious ones leap to mind. If one is fortunate enough to be chosen by an editor and publishing staff at a traditional publisher, one receives the ego boost of external validation. One may also experience the pleasures of spotting one’s books in a favorite local bookstore, or being approached at a convention by a reader asking to have his copy signed. Sometimes there are financial rewards to be had, although, in the overwhelming majority of cases, if one honestly adds up all the hours of labor spent writing, revising, and marketing one’s book, the pay received per hour comes to considerably less than the minimum wage.

However, there is another reward of publishing, a reward most often hidden from and unknown to the writer, a reward which, by its nature, is completely beyond prediction and cannot be consciously striven towards. It is a reward that may sometimes come from completing the circuit of “story,” that wondrous instance when three elements come into full confluence: the writer’s best efforts at storytelling, the reader’s best efforts at interpretation, and external circumstances which render the reader especially receptive to being drawn into a book’s enchantment.

Sometimes a book, as an act of communication, as an instance of human sharing, can provide a lifeline to someone who needs one.

When did I decide I wanted to be a writer? I began thinking about it when I discovered I could entertain my peers by writing an appealing story. But what solidified my desire was receiving the gift of a remote human touch when I truly needed such a touch, from writers such as Ray Bradbury, Robert Silverberg, and Anne McCaffrey. The clincher was reading Barry N. Malzberg’s The Engines of the Night, which told me about the real-life sadnesses and struggles and failures of the minor figures of the science fiction field, men and women (mostly men) who had dreamed big, achieved some measure of success, occasionally major success, and had then been forgotten. I was a teenager when I first read Barry’s book. The stories he shared with me humanized a whole class of people – writers – whom I’d previously assumed led charmed lives. Paradoxically, reading about the writers Barry referred to as the failures of science fiction only made me want to become a science fiction writer even more. Revealing their flaws and their disappointments made me more optimistic that I could, with enough practice and diligence, at least approach their level of work. Perhaps most wonderful of all was my sense that Barry was speaking directly to me, even though we had never met. That sense of connection made me feel much less alone, at a time in my life when I was very prone to feeling terribly alone.

I thought one of the best things I could possibly do as a writer would be to provide someone else, some stranger whom I might never meet, with the same sense of companionship and connection that Barry’s work had granted me. So at that point I knew I would work towards becoming a writer, even though I was fearfully uncertain then that I would have anything worthwhile or new to say.

Living one’s life and taking the gut punches that experience tends to dole out eventually provide a person with something to say; rarely new, but worth the telling (the best stories, after all, can be repeated again and again without losing any of their power). When I was thirty-two, I experienced a double blow that literally left me gasping on the ground. I broke my left ankle in two places during my first attempt at rollerblading, and my wife of four years announced she wanted a divorce. I’ll never forget the book I was reading at the time: Robert Silverberg’s novel, Hot Sky at Midnight. Not one of Silverberg’s classic works, but it was still Robert Silverberg – and I had read and loved enough of Robert Silverberg’s prose to cling to his familiar voice like I would the edge of a lifeboat. For several weeks after my wife’s announcement, I couldn’t fall asleep without talk radio turned on, without some voices (talking about the stock market or home repairs or whatever) to distract me from the voices in my own head. And I couldn’t remain sanely awake in the empty apartment, a cast on my leg, without having Robert Silverberg’s book open on my lap.

The third book I wrote, and the first I was able to get published, Fat White Vampire Blues, grew directly out of that experience. I took my feelings of abandonment, betrayal, yearning, and loss and my resentment at having to move to a new home, put them to words, and made them funny by voicing them through a 450 pound vampire. It was a form of self-therapy, probably one of the most positive things (apart from rehabbing my leg by swimming at the Loyola University gym) that I did for myself. As soon as I finished them, I mailed chapters to my best friend from high school, Maury, who had recently moved from New Orleans to Upstate New York. Maury was going through a rough emotional patch himself, and he told me that my bumbling, hard-luck vampire, Jules, had become a welcome companion, someone who regularly cheered him up, almost as good as having me in the apartment with him.

Recently, I attended CONtraflow in Gretna, Louisiana, the first fan-run science fiction convention to be held in the New Orleans area since just before Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In the hallway outside the dealers’ room, a trio of volunteers from Biloxi’s Coast Con manned a table to advertise their upcoming convention. I hadn’t met any of the three, but I’d attended many Coast Cons, and I stopped by the table to ask them to do a favor for me. A group of Gulf Coast fans, all connected with Coast Con, had tracked me and my family down while we’d been sheltering in Florida after Katrina and had mailed us several care packages. This had touched me very deeply, because I knew the people who had assembled the care packages had most likely been personally devastated by the storm (Katrina came ashore between Gulfport and Bay St. Louis, smashing and inundating most of the Mississippi coast prior to breaking the levees in New Orleans) – yet they had taken the time away from their own troubles to do this for my family and me. I had mentioned this in an Afterword to my most recently published novel, The Good Humor Man, or, Calorie 3501 , and I wanted as many Gulf Coast fans as possible to know how much I had appreciated and would always appreciate what they had done. Knowing I’d likely be unable to attend the next Coast Con in the spring, I asked the three fans at the table to help spread the word for me.

One of the three, a young woman, seemed very eager to talk. She told me she had read Fat White Vampire Blues. She said she had read it a few years ago during an extended hospital stay, when she had been seriously ill. Reading my book had helped her get through her physical and emotional ordeal. It had made her laugh. Reading it and laughing had given her something to look forward to each day she’d been in the hospital. She’d come to think of Jules the vampire as a buddy, someone she happily anticipated spending time with.

I thought back to what Maury had told me years ago, before the book had been published. Being able to provide a modicum of entertainment, diversion, and emotional relief for my best friend, welcome and wonderful as that was, was not too unexpected. But to be able to do the same for a complete stranger, a person I had never had any direct contact with… that was another thing entirely. That almost seemed like a form of magic. Or a blessing. I had sent my book out into the world, a message in a bottle, not knowing how the message would be received, nor who would receive it. And here I was, a thousand miles away from my home, talking with a stranger, only to learn that my effort at storytelling had achieved something well beyond my modest ambitions for it. It had helped shepherd a fellow human being through a harrowing ordeal.

In moments of frustration, disappointment, and self-pity, I sometimes think of myself as a “garbage can novelist,” a writer who had his shot at commercial success, came close but missed, and whose manuscripts now get endlessly circulated around the publishing world, generating rejection after rejection. But I’ll have a much harder time considering myself a failed writer now. My various agents have told me that comedy is a hard sell, risky in the marketplace, because humor is so subjective. I’m sure there’s a lot of truth to that. But now I know I made someone laugh when they really, really needed to laugh.

And how can anyone consider himself a failure when he has done for someone else what the heroes of his younger days did for him?

CONtraflow 2011–A Fresh Beginning for New Orleans Fandom

Zombie Lego Man stalks away with the top costume prize at CONtraflow

A big tip of a ten-gallon hat to CONtraflow 2011 con chair Rebecca Smith, guest liaison Raymond Boudreau, and the entire convention team for pulling off a very successful maiden event, the first fan-sponsored science fiction convention in the New Orleans area since Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Paid attendance was around 300, not bad at all for an event in its first year. Although not advertised as such, the convention had the feel of a weekend-long relaxicon, where formal programming took a back seat to schmoozing, kibitzing, and catching up with old friends.

One opportunity I was extremely happy to be able to take advantage of was to personally thank many fans involved in Gulf Coast fandom, organizers of either CoastCon or MobiCon, for the marvelous and spirit-maintaining support they offered to my family and me during the difficult months following Hurricane Katrina. Despite having suffered monumental personal losses and setbacks themselves, a group of Gulf Coast fans made it their project in September and October of 2005 to track down every fan, writer, and artist they could from the Gulf Coast region to make sure they had made it through the disaster, and to provide encouragement, support, and care packages. My family and I were sheltering in a friend’s uncle’s empty condo down in Surfside, Florida when we received the first of two boxes that had been packed for us by the Gulf Coast fans — vegetarian groceries for Dara and me, and baby care items for our two infant boys. With all the help we received from friends and family (all detailed in the Afterword to The Good Humor Man, or, Calorie 3501), this was the gesture and the effort that touched me the most deeply, and one of the aspects of Katrina I find myself talking about most often.

I heard stories from several longtime New Orleanian fans of what they had lost in the storm. One new friend, comics aficionado Dean Sweatman, told me he’d lost his entire collection of Golden Age and Silver Age comics. Unable to replace them, he’s taken to collecting scans of classic comics from the Internet. I shared my reminiscences of Jack Stocker, fan and book dealer at many local conventions, who’d lost about ten thousand books when his house flooded with nine feet of water. Jack, in his eighties at the time, had borne up under this loss with remarkable grace and optimism and had immediately begun building up his collection of books again, filling the closets of his new apartment in Faubourg Marigny behind the French Quarter, looking forward to selling at regional conventions again. I believe he was still making his book-buying rounds until right before he died.

About half of my formal programming events failed to come off as planned, but it ended up not being much of a big deal, since I always had good company to tide me through (at one panel on Sunday, the other two participants were called away by emergencies, so I ended up talking for much of the hour with an attendee whose grandmother had received food boxes from the senior citizens’ nutrition program I administered for many years in Louisiana). In addition to three discussion panels, I had two readings scheduled, one on Friday and the other on Saturday. I don’t think I was alone among con guests in having their readings attended by either zero or one audience member; readings didn’t turn out to be a popular event-type for the crowd that showed. But on Friday I enjoyed a fun one-on-one chat with Michael “Scotty” Scott, the gaming guest of honor, who, seeing me sitting alone in a function room, took pity on me and ended up telling me a whole bunch about the VulCons of the 1970s in New Orleans and the various games he has designed.

And on Saturday, instead of reading a selection from Fire on Iron, I was able to continue a long conversation with John Guidry, dean emeritus of New Orleans fandom and chair of the 1988 World Science Fiction Convention in New Orleans (NolaCon 2), who told me a boatload of wonderful stories about his friendships and encounters over the years with such genre luminaries as Leigh Brackett, Johnny Weissmuller, Harlan Ellison, Donald A. Wollheim (Guest of Honor at NolaCon 2), and Ray Harryhausen, as well as local New Orleanian friends we had shared in common, the late Jack Stocker and the much-missed George Alec Effinger. With John, I got matters rolling with a question or two and then just shut my trap and listened. His tales of writers and fans in New Orleans stretched all the way back to Depression-era encounters between H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and New Orleans resident E. Hoffmann Price, as well as the legendary Mississippi River raft trip taken by Edmund Hamilton and Jack Williamson to meet Price in the Crescent City. I learned many, many things about the VulCons, Crescent City Cons, and New Orleans Science Fiction and Fantasy Fairs of yore, plus inside dope on the logistical and financial challenges of running a WorldCon. He also told me a great story about how he’d pulled off his successful bid for the 1988 WorldCon — he’d convinced a number of comely young women fen (and one male fan) to dress as harlequins in the party suite, including one young lady who would grow up to become one of the most prominent editors in the science fiction field (hint: she was a guest at CONtraflow).

Werewolf races off with his prize ribbon between his teeth

One of my most pleasant tasks at the convention was to serve as a judge for the costume contest. It was small, with five children and three adults participating, but the kids were all cute and excited, and two of the adult participants had constructed outstanding outfits — an eight-foot-tall werewolf and a zombie Lego man. One of the other judges, Jennie Faries, was a master costumer with lots of WorldCon experience, and the third, the Mysterious Margoli, was a one-time horror hostess from the Jackson, Mississippi area. Had a great time talking old monster movies with her. My old friend Diana Rowland, most recently author of My Life as a White Trash Zombie, and I spent an enjoyable hour together discussing “White Trash Supernaturals.” I moderated another panel on Saturday, “Our Vampires are Different,” and was very pleased to share the stage with Victor Gischler, who received the plum assignment from Marvel Comics of completely revamping (if you’ll pardon the pun) the vampire corner of the Marvel Universe. We talked some about our shared love of Gene Colan’s and Marv Wolfman’s classic Tomb of Dracula series, and I had a chance to clue the audience in on the unacknowledged greatness of the Blacula films. Another highlight for me was my birthday dinner at Kim Son Vietnamese Restaurant, joined by Rob and Cherie Cerio and my old writing workshop buddies Marian Moore, Fritz Ziegler, and Gwen Moore.

But I think my best memories of the con will end up being the time I spent with Ray Boudreau, with whom I share a birthday and a birth year, enthusiastically talking about the TV, cartoon, and movie-watching experiences and convention-going fun we have in common from our childhoods; my chance to do an interview with Scotty as part of his New Orleans fan history project; and the stories I heard from John Guidry. John revealed the very warm, very human sides of a couple of my favorite writers. I always had the impression of Ray Bradbury as being a splendidly happy and grateful man, and John confirmed this for me. Leigh Brackett was one of Ray’s earliest supporters, giving him invaluable encouragement during the years when he was writing his earliest stories and publishing them in Planet Stories. John told me that Leigh had mentioned once that Ray either called or wrote to Leigh every single day for decades to tell her how much he loved her and appreciated her. John also shared an anecdote about Edmund Hamilton, Leigh Brackett’s husband, one of my favorites of the early pulp writers. Ed had written a couple of hundred novellas and novelettes for the Captain Future pulp during the 1940s. John was present when a young boy approached Ed at a convention to tell him how much he’d loved the Captain Future stories. John said he’d watched Ed interact with the little boy, and Ed had treated the youngster like he’d been the only other person in the room, listening with rapt attention. You can’t beat hearing stories like that about a couple of your idols. Thanks, John. You helped make my weekend in New Orleans a memorable one.

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