Robert Silverberg and Karen Haber, 2009. (Photo by Cat Sparx.)
From time to time, Robert Silverberg has told the world that he had written himself out and was retiring from the field. Fortunately for the rest of us, these periods of abstinence from the computer were so depressing to his irrepressibly auctorial psyche that he fled back to the keyboard before long each time. Now he maintains a delicate balance between time spent in putting words on paper, as it seems God has intended for him to do, and time spent traveling the world to view art treasures in the greatest museums and the tiniest of ancient churches.
Betty Anne and I were lucky enough to join him once or twice when we found ourselves inhabiting the same land mass at a convenient time. One such episode that sticks in my mind took place in Italy in 1989. Bob with his wife, Karen Haber, and I with my own, Elizabeth Anne Hull — the wives both had elected to keep their maiden names, which tells you something about them, but at least they didn’t make us take theirs — had been attending a World SF annual meeting in a little town, up in the mountains, called Fanano.
The meeting had been good. World SF had been started by a few of us in order to give sf writers in every country that possessed any examples of any such native creatures a chance to interact with the major writers and editors of the world, and it had come to function very effectively, especially in helping writers from travel-restricting countries get permission to join us. The Fanano meeting had people from all over Europe, including a couple of groups from the USSR, as well as people from several countries in Asia and, of course, a large contingent from North America.
When it was over, Bob wanted to visit a bunch of old churches along the Adriatic on the way north to Venice, and Betty and I volunteered to go along with him.
I can’t say that I have a compelling interest in old churches. I do like to wander around new places, though, so Betty and the Silverbergs parked near a church and I went off to explore. I did peer into one or two churches that might have been where Princess Mathaswentha was saved from a loveless marriage by Martin Padway (at least, she was in L. Sprague de Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall, though in the real world she was less fortunate). But really, after a week of concentrated good fellowship with friends from all over the world I was content with peace and quiet.
Venice, of course, was something else. None of the four of us had been there before, though I had barely missed it once when driving from Trieste down along the (then Yugoslavian, now multinational) coast to the Ancona ferry. And Venice itself was a constant delight.
We had pretty much lost any detailed contact with the world we usually lived in, not having any English-language newspaper or TV handy, but more language-gifted friends in Fanano had told us about big trouble in China. Something was going on in Tianenmen Square, the big open space in Beijing usually given over to crowds of young people anxious to try their imperfect English — or their teacher’s — on us so we could help improve their accents. No crowds of happy youngsters were there now, and no tourists. What young people there were were staring down the barrels of Chinese tanks, and the tank captains — we heard when we found an English paper — were said to have their fingers on the triggers.
It was at that point that we ran across a couple of old friends who, like us, had been at the World SF meeting in Fanano and decided to add on a little Adriatic exploration.
Takumi and Sashiko Shibano, from Tokyo, had been doing the Worldcon for years, and once or twice had stayed with us for a day or two before the con. Yang Xiao, from Chengdu in China, was the editor of the very successful Science Fiction World, by far China’s most prestigious sf magazine. Not one of them spoke a single word of Italian, so they had banded together to do their exploration, in spite of the fact that Yang didn’t speak either Japanese or English, either, and the Shibanos had no Chinese. At home in Chengdu, Yang Xiao didn’t need to know languages, having a staff of translators to keep her informed of what was in all those articles, stories and letters, but they were all still in Chengdu, while she was a world away. A clearly courageous human being, Yang had done all sorts of world traveling, with no more English than you can get out of a Chinese-Engish “useful words” booklet.
I admired her pluck, but immediately discovered she had heard nothing about the drama being played out in Tiananmen Square. I began to worry about how to inform her of the problem that looked like it was convulsing her home country.. We all put our minds to it. We succceded, too. Our American team went over the principal stories about Tiananmen Square in the English and Italian papers to clarify any parts that the Shibanos were unsure of. Then either Takumi or Sashiko wrote each story out in Japanese characters. It is a fortunate quality of the two languages that, although the spoken tongues are mutually incomprehensible, the written ones are enough alike that, with some effort, a Chinese reader can make sense of a Japanese story. And Yang Xiao got the news of the dismal encounter that was shaking her homeland up while she was a world away.
Which just goes to show you what a bunch of science-fiction types can do when they put their minds to it.