Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Chernobyl by Frederik Pohl

 

In 1987, I spent some weeks pushing my (then) new book, Chernobyl. It was an unusual tour mdash; only six states, but a total of four countries mdash; and even more hectic than most of its kind, partly because some of it took place in and around the famous Harmonic Convergence that year.

I’ve said from time to time that the main difference between science fiction, which is supposed to depict things which might actually happen, and reality, which is the sum of the things that do happen, is that reality is a lot less plausible than the author of even the trashiest imaginable science-fiction story would ever dare. I always like it when something I’ve said turns out to be true, so let’s take a look at that implausibility, the 16th of August of ’87, when six hundred thousand people are said to have saved the world by humming in unison.

Let’s start a little way back.

A decade or so before that, a more than ordinarily fuzzy-brained motion-picture producer got hold of a 1974 book called The Jupiter Effect. It went to his head. He decided that he wanted to make it as a feature film. Then, thinking creatively, he realized the book didn’t have any actual story in it that could be filmed, so he decided that he wanted a novel written from which the film could be adapted.

Then, for my sins, they came after me to write the novel.

The thesis of the “Jupiter Effect” was that on a date in the early summer of 1979, all the major planets would be in the same general direction from the Sun. The book said that this could really ruin your day, because the combined gravitational attraction of all those lopsided planets would disturb the core of the Sun. That would somehow accelerate its rate of nuclear fusion and so increase the Sun’s radiation. Then all hell would break loose on the Earth. Among other things, friction between the heated atmosphere and all those mountain tops in the Rockies and Cascades would trigger earthquakes.

As a result, the book said, Southern California would fall into the sea.

(I hope you’re paying enough attention to understand that I’m not describing the plot of a science-fiction story. This was supposed to be real. This interesting prediction didn’t come from somebody’s chance encounter with an alien saucerer from the planet Clarion, but from the work of a couple of — otherwise — pretty reliable physicists.)

So I went and took my meeting, as they say, with the prospective producers and publishers. They explained all this scientific stuff to me, and I knew at once what I had to do. (I have my standards, after all.) I said, “No way, José.”

I said the whole thing was preposterous and definitely was not going to happen; and besides, if they wanted to film that book, the way to do it was to buy the film rights from the authors of the book, and then hire a script writer get to work on a scenario and, above all, leave me alone.

I thought that would end it.

As a matter of fact, I didn’t really understand how this particularly nutty idea had got even that far. Still, I was wholly confident that at some point someone in the producing organization would come to his senses. When this happened they would surely realize, a) that they couldn’t possibly get a film written, cast, produced, cut and released in time for the alleged drowning of Los Angeles and, b) it was a lousy idea anyway. I thought that if I just said no that might end the matter right then. Or, anyway, if it didn’t, at least I’d be out of it.

In the second part of that I was wrong. They kept coming at me.

Continue reading ‘Peddling Books Through the Harmonic Convergence’ »

S.S. Marion McKinley Bovard

S.S. Marion McKinley Bovard

The East-West Homegoing crossing, from the Bay of Naples, down around Sicily and its somber dark-red-lit volcanic peaks and out into the stormy Atlantic, was a lot more exciting than the voyage out, even though we weren’t scanning for the snorkels of enemy submarines from the time of departing Port of New York to arriving at the wreckage-strewn harbor of Naples. The difference was weather. Going out in midsummer we hadn’t had any. Coming back, we had one of the worst winter storms on record.

Making the run from England to Boston a thousand miles north of where we were crossing in the bouncing, swinging little Marion McKinley Bovard, the Queen Elizabeth lost part of her bridge to wave action, nearly a hundred feet above the waterline. Months later, I ran into an Army nurse who had been on that run. When I asked her what it was like, she stared into space, shook her head and finally said, “Have you ever seen 2,400 men and women all puking at once?”

But down where we were, a thousand miles south, we were only in a brutally fierce, but not record-breaking storm. As soon as I saw a mimeograph standing idle, I had volunteered to put out a ship’s newspaper, so I had the run of the ship, barring a few places where I might hurt myself or fall overboard.

I had stationed myself in the captain’s bridge for the duration of the storm, where I kept my eyes fastened on the ship’s clinometer. We’d roll right 25 degrees, then come left about as many on the return — then 26 degrees, 30, 32, 30 — -and then a big one, 38 degrees, 42, 40, 43, 35 — and I couldn’t help myself, I just had to ask the third officer, standing next to me watching the same mad dance of the clinometer, “What if, you know. it hits a swell at the wrong time and just doesn’t come back?”

Continue reading ‘My War, Part 4: Homegoing’ »

By the time the dozen or so of us hungry MidAmeriCon-goers got desperate about food we learned that the Kansas City Rot had spread through the whole city. The hotel’s own coffee shop would take no reservations before midnight, and their fancier restaurant had already closed its doors. Still, one person among us claimed to know a great restaurant no more than a block away. Since all of us were by then beginning to feel rapid emaciation starting to occur in our bodies, we headed there.

We had no trouble finding the place. Unfortunately, when we got to that great restaurant no more than a block away the doors were closed and the lights were out.

Bad luck; but it wasn’t a major setback because we could all see another restaurant a block or two away, and that one was brightly lit with hospitable-looking tables set out by the curb. But to get there required a few minutes walk, and as we were heading there people were coming out the door, looking disgracefully well-fed, and walking away. And the lights were beginning to go out and the tables were being taken in until, when we arrived, it was as dark and unwelcoming as the first place.

And that was only the beginning.

I don’t remember how many places we tried, but, one after another, they all declined our custom. In the few whose doors were open at all their kitchen had just closed and their chefs were on their way home, or they had run out of the ingredients for most kinds of meals entirely.

At last we found a restaurateur willing to take pity on us. Well, reasonably willing. The best the proprietor said he could do was give us a few wooden chairs and tables scattered around an unused dance floor, but, of course, one that was also lacking in musicians or ballroom-type lights.

By then our yearning for gracious service and perhaps a candle or two was outvoted by our famished condition. We placed the most cursory orders we could imagine, and then pleaded with the waiter to tell us what foul event had turned Kansas City hosts into misanthropes. The waiter, as well as his partner in the folded-menu business, helping our guy out because the plague had scared away customers, too, was pleased to fill us in. That’s when we learned that the precipitating event had been the 1976 Republican National Convention, charged with the task of nominating candidates for the Presidency and the Vice-Presidency of the United States, to do battle with the Democratic candidates for those same offices in the November elections.

Since the Presidential candidate they nominated was the incumbent, Gerald Ford, who hadn’t much wanted to be President in the first place and wasn’t particularly good at running a nation-wide election, since he had never experienced one of his own — and who went on in November to lose to a nearly unknown Georgia peanut farmer — they might as well not have bothered.

But, of course, they didn’t know that at the time. Exuberant after hearing themselves telling each other that they couldn’t lose, the delegates wanted to celebrate the impending victory. Celebrate they then did, and in the course of doing so they laid waste to Kansas City’s entertainment industry in a blizzard of bum checks and invalid credit cards and mouths that were adrool for food and drink, mainly drink.

Continue reading ‘Arrival, Part 3: KC in the GOP’s Wake’ »

 

Everything’s up to date in Kansas City.

On a day late in August, in the year of 1976, I was sitting at my ease in a very comfortable first-class seat in a four-engined jet that was just about to land at my favorite airport in the world. I was sipping on a nearly empty glass of Hires root beer, which the stew had already replenished for me twice, and I was prepared to swallow what remained in the glass as soon as the captain ordered us to get ready for landing. I was employed in a well-paid job as the science-fiction editor for Bantam Books, and I confidently expected to be offered a package including quite a lot more money as soon as I got around to sitting down with my boss and talking about that subject. It won’t be much of a surprise to you if I mention that I was feeling good.

I might have been feeling even better if I had known one important fact, namely that this was the day when I would make the best decision of my life, but that information had not yet been revealed to me. The only “best” that I was aware of in my mind was the one that related to the airport we were approaching, Kansas City Intercontinental.

Now, I emphasize right away that what I’m talking about is the airport itself, not about the cities it served. No one has ever dreamed of two enchanted weeks of vacationing either in Kansas City, Kansas, or in the other Kansas City. You know, the one that couldn’t think of a decent name of their own, so they simply swiped the name of their next door neighbor.

KCI’s superlative qualities had nothing to do with the cities it served. It’s the design of the airport itself that is the marvel. You see, when your plane lands, it will taxi to its own gate, set into the outer perimeter of one of the three great circles that hold all the jet gates in the airport. The aircraft door opens, freeing you to go up the short ramp to the walkway that surrounds the entire circle of gates.

A half-dozen or so more steps take you to the baggage claim for your suitcase. It is probably there already, waiting for you before you get there, because now it is only a couple of yards from the place where it rode out the flight, which was in the baggage compartment of your jet, and that other place where it is now, which is firmly on the solid ground of the airport’s baggage claim. You never have to search for your bag in a mass of other bags originating from Buffalo and Barcelona and Bujumbura, either. None of those bags was ever aboard this flight. (Well, I mean, unless that’s where you’re originating from yourself.) Then, bags in hand, you take ten or a dozen steps more and you’re out in the open air, standing at the curb of the outermost strip of the great wheel, waving at a cab which is slowly cruising somewhere along the wheel, and will shortly pick you up right where you stand. Or, if what you want to board instead of a cab is the bus that takes you to the parking lot, or to car rentals, or some other destination, those will also be cruising the great wheel and they will pick you up in minutes. That takes very little more effort to summon, and certainly no more walking than the cab. What more can you ask?

 
Oh, I know what you might ask to make your trip more enjoyable still. You might ask for it to be at some destination other than one of the twin Kansas Cities, and there, I must confess, I have not been entirely frank with you.

I admit I wasn’t happy just about going to either of the Kansas Cities in itself. That city is — either of those cities is — hardly anyone’s favorite gotta-go-there destination for tourism. What elevated my mood, when it wasn’t depressing it, was what I would be doing when I got there, which was attending the annual World Science Fiction Convention, or Worldcon, which had been my custom for most of the years since 1939. (That 1939 one was the first Worldcon of all, the one that I and a few other Futurians were unjustly kicked out of. If you want more details on this event, simply pick up your treasured copy of The Way the Future Was and turn to page 76.) Anyway, that fannish rumble was long ago. Hardly anyone who was involved is still alive. Or cares.)

For me, and for my nearest and dearest, the Worldcons were the places we most looked forward to visiting each year, Sometimes they were held at places that we loved to visit anyway — London, Toronto, a couple of American cities where we had well-loved but not frequently visited friends and relatives. The specific city didn’t all that much matter, though. It was the con itself that was the attraction, the place where we could count on getting together with good friends that we didn’t see every day, because they lived so ridiculously far away — like Patrice Duvic from France, and Sashiko and Takumi Shibano from Japan, and Yuli Kagarlitsky from what was then still called the Soviet Union, and batches of others from Italy and the UK and Sweden and Spain and Brazil, and, of course, from many of the remoter parts of the U.S.A. itself as well.

So what I was really looking forward to was the people who comprised the con itself. That is, I was until I got to my hotel.

Continue reading ‘Arrival: The Happiest Airport’ »

 

When my speaking-tour bookers at Foggy Bottom (as we insiders term the State Department) told me what my next port of call would be, in my world-girdling pilgrimage in the attempt to make foreigners like the U.S.A. better than their own daily papers did, it was Yugoslavia.

That didn’t thrill me as much as you might have thought it would. One of the reasons I jumped, as I usually did when the State Department said “frog!” was that I was trying to beat my friend Jack Gillespie’s record of number of countries any Futurian had set foot in. (His lead was unfair. During the War, he had been Merchant Marine, serving mostly in little freighters that cruised up and down the coasts of both Americas.) Against the odds, though, this time I had already been there.

When we went across the Italian border into Yugoslavia, to tell the truth, the border guards of both nations were more interested in the American comic books they were puzzling over than in what terrorist, regicide or cigarette smuggler was sneaking past them. There was a fair quantity of traffic going through, which led me to make the first of my dumb-headed remarks for that day.

I said, “This ocean drive must be really beautiful to get all these cars driving it.” To which a Foggia-bound Italian fan, who had hitched a ride to his home with us, said, “Not for the beautifulness, no. Is for cheap shopping.”

And the second one was when I said, “There must be a lot of Yugoslavians named Zimmer, because half those little houses have a sign that has their name on it.” Which produced another of those little giggles from the back seat, and then the comment, “In German language the word ‘zimmer’ means ‘room.’ They wish you to stay with them, for money.”

I won’t deny, though, that that drive down the coast road was indeed spectacular, with the broadening blue Adriatic on one side and that mountain range, getting taller and taller, on the other. So, when the man from State had said “Yugoslavia,” my first thought was, “But I’ve seen the mountains and the sea, what’s the point in seeing them over again?”

That would have been my third dumb-headed remark if I’d said it to those two easily amused passengers. Fortunately I didn’t say it to anyone but myself. Because, you see, that vanished nation of Yugoslavia didn’t have any “over again.” At every point it betrayed its origin as a clutch of sovereign states; go one way and you’re among the ski lifts in the mountains, go another and you’re sailing among the gorgeous Adriatic islands. Sometimes you’re in a city, sometimes in hectare after hectare of farmland or pasture.

Well, you say, doesn’t almost every country have that same sort of variety? You’re missing the point, I say. Yugoslavia’s variation was extreme. Go up to Skopje, the capital of Macedonia. It’s a Saturday night and the city square is filled with two concentric rings of strollers, one going clockwise — those are all young men — and the other, walking the other way, young women. You’ll see that in almost every Macedonian town, for young men and young women must somehow meet, or else the race dies out, and there only a certain few approved ways to do it.

And you glance up at the clock on the tallest building. It says 11:15 and you say to your English-speaking companion, “Oh, look at the time!”

And he laughs sand says, “The correct time is a little past eight-thirty. So you know what the time eleven fifteen means? No? Eleven-fifteen is the time when the great Yugoslavian earthquake struck. It caused much damage, so much that our then President declared an emergency and required every other province to send food, vehicles, building materials and money to Skopje. The drive was a great success. So much so that other provinces in Yugoslavia — ” he winks — “begged couldn’t they please have an earthquake of their own.”

You recognize that is a joke, so you just say, “So the earthquake rolled in at eleven-fifteen and stopped the clock. Was there much — ” You were going to ask him about panic, but he’s sighing. You ask if something is the matter.

“Not exactly — well, yes. That story was not entirely correct. Yes, the earthquake struck at eleven-fifteen, but it didn’t stop the clock. The clock had already stopped years before, when something broke and wasn’t fixed. After the earthquake one of the people who worked in that building got a ladder and reset the hands to eleven-fifteen. Which is where they have been ever since.”

 
I don’t want to give the impression that Macedonia was the only part of the old Yugoslavia worth visiting, especially when what I’m trying to say is that was hardly a part of it that was not worth the trip. You could have visited Dubrovnik, for instance, an ancient city built on a spur of solid rock extending out into the Adriatic Sea. It remained intact, when other cities its age had long since been fought over, converted largely to rubble and then rebuilt.

Dubrovnik was preserved intact because it’s really hard for an attacking army to attack, conquer and demolish a walled city on top of a great big rock. This siting had an odd effect on the city’s hotels, or at least in the only hotel I’ve ever stayed at there. The lobby is at street level. The streets, however, lie on the top of the rock, and when you’ve signed in you take the elevator down to the guest rooms carved out of the side of the rock.

 
(More about Yugoslavia coming to you shortly after I write it.)

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When the great world of non-English-speaking science fiction fans began to flex their young muscles and develop their own brand-new sorts of clubs and cons there was o way to slow them down. So it was no surprise to us Americans that, when there sprang into life an annual science fiction film festival, it was on the other side of an ocean, in a city called Trieste.

When some fan asked what country it was in, some wise guy — it may have been me — asked, “What country was it in when?” Because in the memory of living people — -that is, of people who were living in the 1960s — Trieste had alternately been Austro-Hungarian, Yugoslavian or Italian. And that doesn’t count those periods when the wars that changed things were over, but the old men with the chalk in their hands hadn’t quite finished drawing those map lines that dictated who would live where, and what they. would call themselves.

By the time Trieste hosted Il Festivale di Fantascienza, though, it was irrevocably (they said) Italian, and that’s what got us there. We were sitting on our porch in Red Bank, New Jersey, my then wife Carol and I, me reading the final pages of my latest collaboration with Jack Williamson, the Old Master himself, and Carol studying a map of eastern Europe.

I had just finished the final pages, having made only a handful of penciled improvements, none that required retyping whole pages, which meant all I had to do just then was put it in the mail for a final lookover by Jack. Unless he found something he wanted me to do over, which he almost never did, the next thing I would have to do with that one would be to deposit the check for the on-delivery half of my part of the advance when it turned up in the day’s mail.

That’s when Carol said, “Ðubrovnik” pronouncing the name as though enjoying the flavor of it.

What I said then was. “What?” I don’t know exactly what thoughts had been floating around my easily distracted mind at that time, but I was sure that they had nothing to do with towns with funny names..

She filled me in. “I said, ‘Dubrovnik,’ because I always said I wanted to visit some place that had a name I couldn’t pronounce.”

I reminded her that she had just pronounced it, and she shook her head at me. “How do I know I pronounced it right? Anyway, that’s not the important part. Look on the map here. Here’s this Dubrovnik place, and it’s right down the coast from that sci-fi film thing you said you wanted to go to, the one in Treesty.”

“There isn’t any such place as Treesty,” I informed, “The Film Festival is in Tree-esty. And all I said was maybe one of these years we might take a look — ”

“Well, what’s wrong with this year? You said you wanted to go there.. And just the other day, Mother was asking if we were going to want her to mind the kids while we went somewhere. I told her I’d ask you, so now I’m asking.”

I said, “Hum.” That was my coded expression for meaning, Let me mull this over in my mind, because Carol had a point. Back in those wartime days when my personal travel agent had been the U.S. Air Force, they had shipped me all over the map of Italy, except for two areas they somehow missed. One of them was Sicily, way down at the farthest south. The other, in the farthest north, was that spur of land at the top of the Adriatic Sea that held Trieste. The opportunity to see more of a country I had come to love simply couldn’t be passed up. So we made our plans, Carol and I, and we checked to see that our passports were up to date and that Carol’s mother, Carolie Ulf, was still cheerful about supervising the youngest children for two or three weeks, the two older ones being off at school,.

And next thing you know, our Alitalia jet was touching down at Milan’s airport and we were shifting our not inconsiderable baggage into the trunk of a Hertz car and heading east.

Continue reading ‘Under Three (or Maybe More) Flags, Part 1’ »