Posts tagged ‘Science Fiction Research Association’

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’ »

 

Jack Vance, 1979.

Jack Vance, 1979.

One weekend last summer — to be exact, on the morning of 19 July, 2009 — a lot of New Yorkers got a surprise when they opened their Sunday Times Magazine. What they found was particularly pleasing to those among them who chanced to be science-fiction fans, for there in that prestigious journal was a critical — and very favorable — essay on a writer that it called “one of America’s most distinctive and underrated voices.” And the owner of that voice, it said, was none other than our own Jack Vance.

It was not only Carlo Rotella, the critic who wrote the Times piece, who thought so. He was able to quote Michael Chabon (“Vance is the most painful case of all the writers I love who I feel don’t get the credit they deserve. If The Last Castle or the Dragon Masters had the name Italo Calvino on it, or just a foreign name, it would be received as a profound meditation.”) and Dan Simmons, who said that discovering Vance “was a revelation for me, like coming to Proust or Henry James…. He gives you glimpses of entire worlds with just perfectly tuned language. If he’d been born south of the border he’d be up for a Nobel prize.”

As one of those Vance-loving sf fans myself, I read the Times piece with astonishment and pleasure, for science fiction has long had a bad press — slightly relieved in recent years by the impressive earnings of writers like Frank Herbert and Isaac Asimov — from most of the country’s respectable journals. But what this piece said was not only interesting, it was precisely true. Jack Vance not only imagines wonderful things to tell us about, he embodies his visions in a special individual kind of language that is all Vance’s own.
 

I came late to Vance. Most of his early stories appeared in magazines and other places that I didn’t normally read. Friends with my best interests at heart did try to persuade me to give this Vance person a try, but I never quite got around to following their sage advice. Then Horace L. Gold began to find the editing of Galaxy too much for him to handle. I helped him as needed for a while; then he retired and the publisher asked me to take over.

I not only had read little of Vance, I had never — unusually among the sf writers of the ’50s and ’60s — happened to meet him. We had many friends in common among the writers who lived, like Vance, in the Pacific Northwest, and they didn’t fail to keep me informed of his doings. With Poul Anderson and Frank Herbert, he had for a time owned a houseboat, and when one day it sank at its moorings, Vance was the one who worked out a way to refloat it.

With his late wife, Norma, whom he had met and married when they both were still college undergraduates, Vance was a world traveler, visiting unlikely spots all over the map, and writing whole books in improbable places. He had begun writing while in the Merchant Marine in the South Pacific in World War II, and kept it up in whatever part of the world he happened to be visiting at that specific moment. Whatever the locale, Jack wrote his stories in longhand, whereafter Norma typed them up to send out..

And then one day, after Horace had retired and I had inherited the batch of stories he had bought, I was going through them and I discovered one or two I had never seen. One was by Vance, and it was called “The Moon Moth.” It was the story of an Earthman posted as a diplomatic official on a planet whose people appear in public only when wearing ornate masks and communicate not by talking but by singing.

It caught my attention. Vance was what I thought of as an ornamental writer — mannered prose, complex sentences, formal dialogue. That was not necessarily a good thing. I’m as fond of Remembrance of Things Past (or whatever they’re calling Marcel Proust’s masterwork now) as the next man, but I don’t normally find that kind of linguistic mastery in the slush pile of a science-fiction magazine. Done beautifully, that sort of thing is beautiful. Done poorly, I send it back to the writer.

This was definitely in the beautiful territory.

One of Vance’s scholars has reported that Vance was impressed by the equally ornate style of James Branch Cabell. Both Vance’s and Cabell’s styles are similarly inflated, but I don’t think they are mannered in quite the same way. No matter. “The Moon Moth” was a fine story. I scheduled it for an early issue and sought more. It took a while, but ultimately my efforts did bear fruit as I received a new Vance manuscript called The Dragon Masters.

I read it at once and instantly loved it. It concerned a planet inhabited by humans, but from time to time visited by spaceships from another planet, this one inhabited by intelligent lizard-like aliens, called dragons, who kidnap humans for the purpose of breeding them into fighting troops. When they have achieved their purpose they have an army of mutated humans in several different types, including giant warriors. The dragons use these to capture more humans for their breeding experiments. However the humans of the raided planet have managed to capture one dragon spaceship with its crew, well before this story starts, and are breeding dragon warriors in the same way that the dragons breed (formerly) human ones.

It struck me as the perfect Jack Vance story, with a handsomely imagined setting, a carefully invented plot line, embellished by his unique use of language. I got busy.
 

I called Jack Gaughan, the most inventive of our stable of artists, and asked him to come in to discuss a particularly challenging set of illustrations. The wonderful thing about Gaughan was that he understood what I was asking for a good deal faster then most illustrators, and he did not disappoint. He came through with a bunch of his best work, including a cover and interior black and whites that involved thumbnail sketches of each of the purpose-bred races each side had created out of the captured samplings of the other.

I loved it.

I wasn’t the only one who did, either. When at last that issue was on the stands the reader mail was good, and when it came time for award voting The Dragon Masters had — of course — won a Hugo (though, curiously, it was described as a short story, I have never known why) and Gaughan had won an art Hugo of his own, specifically for The Dragon Masters work (and, I believe, the only time the award was given for a specified set of illustrations rather than for general high quality.)

Sometimes being an editor is fun.
 

For me the fun quotient was diminishing around that time. I have long believed as an article of faith that no one should hold the same editorial job for more than a decade or so, because (I believe) the best work is done when it is all fresh and new and after a while the editor is just going through the motions. A few years after The Dragon Masters, I proved that point by making a serious mistake with another Jack Vance story, The Last Castle. Jack had divided the story into a number of chapters and added a clutch of scholarly, but irrelevant, comments at the beginning of each chapter. Editors are put upon this Earth for the purpose of correcting an author’s errors in such matters, and I set myself to improving Jack’s chapter headers by cutting them fifty per cent or so.

The mistake wasn’t in making that decision — those chunks of prose were excessive and seriously distracting — it was in doing the cutting myself without first asking Jack to fix it. When he saw the published version he was unhappy. When I ran into him at a meeting of the Science Fiction Research Association in Lake Tahoe a little later his first words were, “Fred, you shouldn’t have done it,” And he never sent me another story.

Actually he didn’t have many opportunities to do that. Not long afterward, I took a week off to go to a film festival in Rio de Janeiro, and when I came back to the office I found that Bob Guinn had taken advantage of my absence to sell the magazines to another publisher.

Indeed, that was his right; he owned them. But I think he suspected that if I were around when he was making that deal I might have talked him out of it, and I certainly would have tried. It wasn’t a good idea. But by then it was a fait accompli.

I took it as a reminder of my convictions about the relevance of longevity to performance in an editorial job, and actually as an opportunity to try something else for a while. (The other publisher had no idea how to run the magazines, as I had expected. They hung on for a couple of years of dwindling quality and then were folded.)
 

For a time, I lost touch with Jack Vance, as I did with many of the Galaxy contributors after that. Then I heard that things were not going as well as he deserved for him. First came the word that he was losing his vision, and then that Norma had died. Before the blindness became total, he was still managing to get some writing done by scribbling a word or two, in giant letters, on each sheet of paper and then writing the next word or two on another sheet, und so weiter.

Since then we do keep in some sort of touch by the occasional phone call, and I was happy to learn that he now has a sensitive high-tech computer system to write with. He’s too good a writer, and too good a man, to be condemned to silence.