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Science Fiction Association of Bergen County

Convention Reports:

Chicon V -- Worldcon XLIX (1991)

A convention report by Taras Wolansky

[Editor's Note: This material originally appeared in FOSFAX, Issue #158, November 1991. It is reprinted with the permission of the author.]



Copyright 1996 Taras Wolansky


Table of Contents

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Chicon '91

Chicon V -- Worldcon XLIX

Chicon V, Worldcon 1991, was held August 29th through September 2nd at the Hyatt Regency and Swissotel in Chicago. The Guests of Honor included: Hal Clement, artist Richard Powers, editor Martin H. Greenberg, fans Joni and Jon Stopa, and toastmistress Marta Randall. The Hyatt is very near to the site of Fort Dearborn (the outline is marked in the pavement at the intersection of Michigan Ave. and Wacker Drive), where in 1812 a particularly extravagant and treacherous Indian massacre occurred, I mean, where Native Americans won a great victory over European invaders.

I will forever think of Chicon V as Tunnelcon, for its underground maze of shops, tunnels, ballrooms, and function spaces. I suspect that the Hyatt's underground ballrooms must be converted basements or underground parking lots, because of their bizarre and inconvenient layout, which constantly had one traveling in great arcs to get from one place to another; but Donald Kingsbury insisted he knew architects stupid enough to do it on purpose. When I arrived, the Hyatt seemed one of the best hotels I'd ever stayed in, for the price.

But by the time I left, the Hyatt seemed to me one of the worst hotels I've ever known. You see, beneath each door is a gap of rather more than an inch (I measured it); and in the spacious bathroom a powerful evacuation duct that (like the Krel "Big Machine" in Forbidden Planet) cannot be turned off or turned down. All of which means that, however you adjust the air conditioning, the room cannot be made one degree warmer than the chilly hallway. My last night there was spent with towels crammed under the door; newspapers in the ceiling to stop a draft from another ventilation duct; the door to the bathroom closed, with washcloths blocking the bottom. But by that time I was already suffering from a bad cold.

Which was an appropriate end to a convention during which I suffered a variety of minor but unpleasant ailments; all of which conspired to make me see less of the convention than I would have wished.



Petit Opening

The opening ceremonies, early Thursday afternoon, introduced one of the recurring themes of this convention: inaudibility. Most panels I attended were limited to a single microphone; on two separate occasions, panelists made reference to the old, "Saturday Night Live" skit about "News for the Hearing Impaired".

To get back to the ceremony, it opened with a skit, with people sitting at the tables of an imaginary diner. Periodically the "waitresses" moved a couple of them from one side of the stage to the other, but I never figured out exactly what was going on. Then the Guests of Honor were brought to the stage one at a time, on a sedan chair borne by a quartet of enthusiastic cannibal witch doctors festooned with parts of toys, dolls, plastic spoons, etc. One bearer had the legs of a doll sticking out of his headdress, another the arms. (God knows what happened to the rest.) Yet another wore a vest made of small stuffed animals sewn together.



Editorial Privilege

"Uncut Heinlein", early Thursday evening, featured Phyllis Eisenstein, Patrick Nielsen-Hayden, Lois Mangan, George W. Price, and Jay Kay Klein, moderating. The discussion concerned the recent publication of Heinlein's original versions of Red Planet, The Puppet Masters, and Stranger in a Strange Land.

Nielsen-Hayden rated the uncut Red Planet as superior to the version we have known hitherto. However, he felt the "publisher's version" of Stranger was superior to Heinlein's original manuscript, and gave credit to editor Peter Israel. (But Susan Allison, in the audience, said Israel denies this and insists Heinlein did he editing himself.)

Price noted that while Puppet Masters was edited to tone down the sexual content, in Red Planet the issue was gun control. (That is, Heinlein's frontier Mars didn't have enough of it, and a relatively authoritative character opposed it.) Price took the opportunity to read, relative to the Second Amendment's invocation of a "well-regulated militia", the relevant passages from the U.S. Code, which states that all able-bodied men constitute the militia. Which led Nielsen-Hayden to caustically note, who says the long-winded political statements in late Heinlein are unrealistic! Nielsen-Hayden put forth the interesting concept of Heinlein as an avant-garde artist. We know, after all, Heinlein admired John Barth; certainly the later works are self-referential, as well as self-consciously literary.



Sinister Rectitude

Later that same evening, "Censorship from the Left" gave us Michael Flynn; John Norman; Brian Thomsen of Questar, Norman's new publisher and a former editor of Penthouse Letters; Jack Haldeman, who has written for Penthouse; academic Brad Lyau; and New Hampshire legislator Scott Green (whose listing as "S. Green" made me think this panel would be more provocative than it really was). It seemed intended to touch on some of the same territory as the Heinlein panel, above. The only problem was that most of the panelists expressed their disinclination to discuss -- censorship from the Left. Flynn made the provocative suggestion that the only reason we have freedom of speech at all is that pressure groups can't agree on what to suppress. However, Norman said there is a "liberal feminist consensus" in the publishing industry which, given that there are only seven or eight big publishing houses that carry SF, can have a considerable impact. Most censorship, he later added, is self-censorship. Writers simply don't write books they think no one will buy.

But is publishing companies' refusal to publish really censorship, asked Green. Well, no, responded Thomsen. He went on to express his readiness to publish anything that would make money; or at least it sounded like that to me. The media tend to suppress information about anti-Semitism among blacks, suggested Green. On a similar note, Mike Resnick asked from the audience how likely we are to see a "black liberal Lesbian" villain. (Calling Jim Baen!) The current furor about "Political Correctness", presumably what the panel was supposed to be about, was briefly aired. A sinister-looking character in the audience made a very long speech, to the effect that all the bizarre manifestations of "PC" in academia are really part of a vast conspiracy by dark, right-wing forces to discredit the Left. I pointed out that this is a perfectly unfalsifiable hypothesis, because all contrary evidence is considered merely another manifestation of the conspiracy; but thinking back I suspect that individual didn't understood what I was talking about.

After the panel, I buttonholed Brian Thomsen, to clear up the impression I had received during the panel, that he would publish anything for which there is a market. In fact, he said, he will not publish material that fails the test of factual accuracy -- he gave Kitty Kelley-type biographies as an example -- or that lacks literary quality. (Later, I kicked myself for not asking him how he can possible think John Norman meets either criterion!) I suspect that, as a practical matter, these guidelines are subjective enough to let Thomsen reject anything he finds really, personally offensive. When I suggested publishers must be held ethically responsible for their actions, just like anybody else, Thomsen threw "The Merchant of Venice" back at me. We got bogged down on the question of whether that play is anti-Semitic or not. Mulling it over afterward, though, I concluded the issue is how you publish something. There's a difference between publishing De Sade in a scholarly edition for research libraries, and mass-marketing a million copies to all the newsstands and drugstores in the country. In particular, the publisher of science fiction and fantasy, genres heavily read by teenagers, bears a responsibility heavier than some.

"John Norman is known and revered as the creator of the bestselling Gor series ... It was a marvelous combination of Burroughsian space opera and social anthropology of a controversial nature." -- Brian Thomsen, in a Questar advertisement published in Locus.



Slightly Honorable

Friday evening, the Guests of Honor gave their obligatory spiels. Fans went first. Jon Stopa noted he is luckier than some, in that his spouse is also a fan. He described a divorce case in which the husband complained his wife persistently called him "mundane". "A mundane," she corrected. Joni Stopa told of becoming a fanzine fan when her age was still in single digits. Wilson "Bob" Tucker advised her to start a family, instead of going to college or writing letters of comment (this was in the fifties); he didn't realize those letters had been written by a nine-year-old! Later she was old enough to attend her first convention; at which she promptly met Bjo Trimble, who advised her that a single woman at an SF convention ought never to pay for her own dinner.

Marty Greenberg was a political science prof when he put together his first anthology, Political Science Fiction. He wrote to Isaac Asimov, asking for permission to use a story; Asimov replied that he could, but only if he proved he was not the Martin Greenberg who was publisher of Gnome Press in the early fifties. Not long afterward, Dave Kyle, who had been the other Greenberg's partner, showed up on his doorstep with a roll of quarters in his clenched fist! And in subsequent years he has received dunning letters addressed to the other Martin Greenberg.

Richard Powers said his covers broke every rule of cover art; he is still amazed Ian Ballantine let him get away with some of them. Though he feels 80% of artists would disagree with him, Powers says, "the writers don't need me to amplify their points." He limits his role to creating an SF atmosphere; if the author and the publisher can squeeze a story in there between the covers, that's OK by him.

He reported that at NASFiC in Texas in 1985, Jack Vance said to him: "I know you don't read them, but are you aware there is a story in there you could illustrate?" The very fact Powers does not hesitate to repeat a story so damaging to himself may say something about his contempt for the science fiction field. Because his scratchy, globby, abstract covers really did do damage to Vance's rich, baroque but realistic tales; in the sense that they were off-putting to many potential Vance fans, while attracting (?) readers who would not like the material.

Finally, Hal Clement said he eschews nostalgia about great SF of the past; he wants more people to write SF, so he can read it! He prefers to generate his story lines from an "incompletely understood environment" rather than a conflict of interests between characters.



Techno-Sleuth

Saturday afternoon, "Stalking the Wily Hacker and Other Midnight Adventures" saw a large audience hear Cliff Stoll's personal and wildly idiosyncratic account of how he, as a lowly systems programmer, caught a German hacker who was breaking into U.S. government computers on behalf of the KGB.

For once, there was no problem hearing what was said: Stoll wore a remote body mike (presumably his own), as he scampered all around the room waggling his hands in the air, like a monkey on speed; climbing around on the chairs, borrowing people's personal possessions, playing with his yo-yo, hurling copies of his book, The Cuckoo's Egg, to people in the audience, taking a man's picture with the man's own camera; every once in a while to come to rest, in lotus-position on top of a table, to glug a carton of milk. Stoll told us the aim of computer security is to "trace things backward" (he followed his overhead projector's power from extension cord to extension cord) "and pull the plug!" (he crowed triumphantly as he pulled it from the wall). To do that, he said, you often have to evade roadblocks (as he ducked out of one door and in through another, talking all the while). The first overhead transparency he showed us was made up of nothing but dozens of Lawrence Berkley Laboratory logos. LBL's strict rule, Stoll explained, is that every transparency must bear the logo; he meets the standard, on average, by putting all the logos on one sheet! He claimed that the secret of the success of LBL's computer security effort was that the group was "broke, stupid, and discouraged"; that is, without funds, expertise, or support from their superiors. He explained that managers of computer centers typically want to sweep security problems under the rug.

I will not recount Stoll's story here, as it is widely known, from the one-hour re-enactment on PBS, in which Stoll played himself; as well as from his other appearances on television, and from reviews of his book. (For laughs, I recommend the one in SF Eye, the Politically Correct fanzine, which manages to avoid the words, espionage and KGB.)

One thing I will say. I had not known just how extensive the Hanover Hacker's activity had been. Stoll said he had watched the hacker attack 450 computer systems, and successfully break into 30 to 50. In many cases, the hacker managed to make himself "system manager"; which is to say, he not only broke in, he took over.



Underdone

Marta Randall, mistress of ceremonies of Sunday afternoon's "Greenberg Roast", described it as the "most dubious event of the convention". Martin Harry Greenberg is, several of the roasters agreed, too nice to roast. Nonetheless, a number of luminaries, including Robert Silverberg, Mike Resnick, A.J. Budrys, and Forry Ackerman, gave it a shot.

Bob Weinberg claimed Greenberg is never without his little black book -- of dead authors whose work is in the public domain. The break-up of the Soviet Union has given him a host of new opportunities: The Best of Latvian SF, The Best of Georgian SF, etcetera; and now, What If--The Coup Succeeded. (Greenberg ostentatiously took notes.)

Robert Silverberg informed the audience that the Greenberg they saw was not the real one; just an android sent by the Greenberg organization. He invited all of us to feel the control surfaces on the back of the Greenberg android's neck. A Western convention would get an android on a cowboy theme; but science fiction conventions get "this pallid, sluglike creature". (Greenberg visibly flinched.)

4E Ackerman fired off a long string of lewd and outrageous puns which eventually had the gentle mistress of ceremonies hiding under the table. Among Greenberg's forthcoming books (I recorded only a few) were: Thrilling Leprosy Stories; a Tor double "with a Bear behind"; an anthology of literary SF with, of course, "a Dick in it". (I was sitting in the front row, and could see Ackerman was referring to sheets from the little note pads the Hyatt provided. He must have composed all of his material since arriving at the convention.)

Pat Cadigan told a long story about visiting a sex club with Greenberg on a night when it happened to be raided. The two of them were just heading for the lavatories to hide, when -- she broke off the story. She explained: when Greenberg reprinted her story, "Pretty Boy Crossover", in the Orson Scott Card anthology, Future on Fire, he left off the ending; she was returning the favor.

All of which is not to say Greenberg didn't get to return some of the serves. Mike Resnick, he confided to the audience, has never been to Africa! At dinner the night before, Marta Randall had rashly told Greenberg her childhood nickname. He had given his word not to repeat it; but he was free to present the swiftly reddening Randall with gossamer wings and a magic wand, and to inform us it had "something to do with a bell."



Literary Gryphons

Sunday evening, Tink -- I mean, Marta Randall -- presided over the distribution of awards, Hugo and otherwise. (I watched the awards on the hotel's closed circuit channel, stuffing myself with cake in somebody's open party.) For a list of the winners, see September's FOSFAX. Early on, there was a bit of foolishness with the microphone, with tall presenters bending it out of the reach of the mistress of ceremonies. (Vertical harassment, anyone?)

David Brin's The Uplift War won the Seiun Award, the Japanese Hugo, for best translated novel. Brin stalked onto the stage, wearing a top hat, blurted out a few words in Japanese; and stalked off, even as the nonplused Japanese presenter begged him to say a little more.

The ancient feud between Locus and Science Fiction Chronicle was on more than one mind. When Ginjer Buchanan was about to announce Locus's inevitable victory in the "semi-prozine" category, she remarked, tongue in cheek, "after all these years, I can't believe it!" Andy Porter of SFC had to content himself with a special award; and, not inappropriately, used the occasion for special pleading: "I think there are many things wrong with the Hugo Awards ..." (Earlier, in the huxters, I had signed his petition to redraw the line between pro and semi-pro, in such a way as to put Locus and SFC in different categories.)

When he came to the stage to collect his "best novella" Hugo for "The Hemingway Hoax", Joe Haldeman urged us all to buy the book version. To shorten the novel for magazine publication, Haldeman explained, Gardner Dozois and he had cut fifteen to twenty thousand words of explicit sex!



Singular Speculations

Early Monday afternoon, "Can We Reach Vinge's Singularity? The Meaning of Exponential Progress" gave us a panel of scientists interested in Vernor Vinge's hypothesis about the future of humanity: Thomas F. Van Horne, Chip Morningstar, Dale Skran, and Bill Higgins (who got a round of applause when it was learned he arranged the convention's science track); plus Jim Baen, publisher of Dr. Vinge's SF work.

This "singularity", named by analogy with the breakdown of physical laws inside a black hole, was described as "the point at which humanity's activities can no longer be understood by anyone living today." According to Baen, Vinge believes Greg Bear's Blood Music is as close to his idea as anyone has come in SF.

Don't put too much faith in graphs which show exponential progress just ahead, warned Morningstar. Depending on the scale you use, you can make the "knee" of the graph appear anywhere. Skran and Higgins discussed the force which will oppose progress: institutional inertia, market inertia (upward compatibility, standards inertia), personal inertia, psychological and physical resistance ("Commie-symp neo-Luddites," wisecracked Baen), human conflict, the distraction of dream worlds (i.e., virtual reality). So far we've progressed in spite of all that, remarked Morningstar. On the other hand, the panelists noted, the answer to the Fermi Paradox (crudely, why we're not hip-deep in aliens or their devices) may lie among those obstacles. Or, Van Horne suggested, there may be something we can't see at our level of intelligence that will make space travel unimportant. It occurs to me that the optimistic view of the Fermi Paradox is that it reflects the discovery of (or the ability to create) parallel worlds. Short of that, however, no matter how powerful and how smart we get, we will always face the Economic Problem: limited means, unlimited ends. In other words, there are more ideas for moving planets than there are planets to move.



Creationists

Monday afternoon saw a large attendance for "Classic Worldbuilding Techniques" with Larry Niven, Frederik Pohl, Hal Clement, and Jerry Pournelle (with laptop). A regular con-goer tends to get his fill of world-building panels pretty early on; but I have so rarely seen Pournelle on any panel that I went anyway.

Whether I saw the typical Pournelle is another matter. At one point Fred Pohl remarked, "I'm baffled by the fact Jerry Pournelle is so quiet!" Commenting on the "shared world" phenomenon, Pohl said he prefers the "Renaissance Man" approach to world-building: create the world, and write in it. To write in somebody else's world is less fun. But Larry Niven, whose "Known Space" stories inspired Baen Books' "Man-Kzin Wars" series, thought it was "wonderful" not to have to write it yourself.

With Niven and Pournelle on the same panel, it was inevitable that the discussion should touch on literary collaboration. Niven advised budding authors to collaborate only if they can't do it by themselves, because it's too much work. Pournelle, who noted that his and Niven's sequel to The Mote in God's Eye is almost done, said he would not collaborate with Niven on "Known Space", because he considers it sociologically implausible. A plausible social order contains institutions to handle conflict and manage organized violence.

Clement spoke of the "Medea" project, the one shared world he has been involved in. He noted that one of the life forms of Medea was inspired by a marine worm that reproduces by literally digging in its feet and pulling itself apart. Pournelle: "Boy, what a thrill!" Pohl: "Don't knock it until you've tried it." Pournelle: "Was it good for you, too?" Pournelle reminisced about his days working for NASA. One time the topic of discussion was lunar colonies. NASA boss: why would anyone want to live there? Pournelle said he felt like a provincial bishop who discovers the Pope is an atheist.

Pohl, the hardest-working man in SF, said this was his fifteenth panel of the convention.



Arts

To get to the Art Show from the Dealers' Room, or vice-versa, one had to go up a escalator; circumnavigate a crowded hallway around two sides of the Hyatt's Grand Ballroom; then descend another escalator. When in fact the Dealers' Room and Art Show were two halves of the same hall, merely separated by a cloth partition!

All of which meant I spent less time in both places than I would have wished. Still, a few items in the Art Show would not be ignored. The wittiest has to be Sue Anderson's "Predator-Prey Relationships in the Late Ediacaran Fauna of Precambrian North America" -- a gaggle of crochety [NFP: a joke] globs of cotton fabric with miscellaneous eyeballs and "claws" (hooks). The largest "predator" is perusing the invertebrate glories of H.P. Lovecraft's "Shadow Out of Time". Close second is Cynthia Emmons' "Knight Roast", a three-foot-square batik tapestry which depicts a family of bipedal dragons having a front-yard barbecue; nearby is a discarded pile of armor. As for bigger "names", Michael Whelan's "The Summer Queen" showed once again that he is not content to rest on his laurels. It shows a complexity of design an order of magnitude beyond what we normally find in his work and, for all that it is still in acrylics, subtler colors as well.

I chanced to run into Whelan in my brief peregrinations of the hall. I took the opportunity to praise the art show "tour" he had led at Lunacon, some months earlier, and to express my disappointment he wasn't doing one here. He said he loved doing them, but nobody asked him.



Dubitable and Indubitable Achievements

The management of this convention was pretty fair, though not outstanding. On the one hand, the programmers did a good job of matching each item to a room of the proper size; on the other, there were some schedule conflicts that bordered on the comical. For example, Sunday, 1 PM featured: "Discussion Panel: Hal Clement"; and "Slide Show: Hal Clement Show". Friday, 5 PM gave us: "Pure vs. Mixed Horror"; and "Talk on Phantom of the Opera"; and "A Whisper of Blood"; and "Theory of Horror Fiction". Mind you, I did not see any of these and some of them may have been rescheduled. I can't say, because the posted notices of program changes were thoroughly incomprehensible.

Fortunately the schedule in the Pocket Program was very accurate. Though the maps were confusing, even without two different floors in the Hyatt labeled "Ballroom Level". It was hard to tell which tower of the Hyatt was which; or what floors were on what (subterranean) levels. (The Hyatt towers, and the Swissotel, were connected only on some levels.)

For once there was no problem telling which room was in which hotel, because all the rooms in the Swissotel were named after Swiss locations. Even so, as a general rule all entries in all pocket programs ought to include notations for building (or tower) and floor (e.g., H3-Ogden). Apart from useful bibliographies of Hal Clement and Martin Harry Greenberg, the Program (i.e., Souvenir) Book is undistinguished. It appears to be mostly advertising, so let's hope it helped keep the convention in the black.

In the category of dubious innovations were the "discussion groups", in which fans were expected to pay between $13 and $19 to have breakfast or lunch or an afternoon snack with a couple of writers. I was not surprised when most of the sessions had to be cancelled; something similar had been tried at Boskone this year and had been poorly attended, even with no charge. Japanimation: about all I can say about it is, for a Worldcon it was rather weak. I was surprised to see a poor copy, with amateur subtitles, of Hayao Miyazaki's "Kiki's Delivery Service"; a superior, copyrighted version with professional subtitles was available in the hucksters' room. I did a good deal of socializing and party-hopping, which I will not bore you with. (Besides, I don't take notes while I'm doing that.) I can't let one open party go by without comment: the "James Tiptree, Jr. Memorial Award Bake Sale". This is feminism?? Whatever it was, it was delicious! For me, the one outstandingly positive aspect of this convention is the vast number of fanzine friends (and a few enemies) I got to meet; mostly from FOSFAX, but also from Tightbeam. A bunch of us got together for the traditional FOSFAX Dinner; or, as I like to call it, FOSFAX Dinnest.--

Taras Wolansky



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