Thursday, 13 October 2016


It's late summer, 2013 and there's going to be a science-fiction convention right here in San Antonio, something called Worldcon which happens every year and is apparently a big deal. I read a lot of science-fiction and I also write science-fiction, but I've never really quite been able to bring myself to think of events of this kind as having anything to do with me. Advertising will typically centre on some person from Babylon 5 being in attendance to sign copies of his autobiography, but that's a television show. I suppose it's science-fiction, technically speaking, but foremost it's a television show. I can't think of a television show I'd watch rather than read a book, and were there one, it probably wouldn't be science-fiction. I vaguely recall having seen two or three episodes of Babylon 5 - one of the good ones, according to its devotees - but it did nothing for me and it seemed to lack a sense of humour.

Apparently I have what is termed an elitist or snooty attitude, meaning I think I'm better than everyone else because my opinions do not reflect those of the majority. All I know is that after the first ten minutes of most television dramas, I'm usually restless and I begin to wonder is this really all it is?; and then my mind wanders to whatever I've been reading of late, meaning I begin to lose track of which character is which and why they just said that to wossisname. It's difficult to avoid a certain sense of superiority when it dawns on you just how easily satisfied so many of your contemporaries appear to be - predicated on their being able to sit through an entire hour of this shit - but then, doesn't everyone regard themselves as superior to those around them? Psychosis aside, is there anyone who genuinely thinks I'm the same as other people, or even I'm much worse than everyone I know?

Still, Roberto will be in town, and he's been making noises about Worldcon, so I figure maybe I should go. It might be interesting and it might even be fun, which probably wouldn't be the case were I to go on my own. When I say Roberto will be in town, I'm referring to San Antonio but I suppose I also mean America because he's Italian. I know Roberto only through an internet connection. He's one of a seemingly dwindling international group of persons who frequent an internet stoop dedicated to the science-fiction author Clifford D. Simak. Simak wrote quietly contemplative and distinctly pastoral science-fiction novels which achieved some popularity throughout the fifties, sixties, and seventies, but he seems to have been largely forgotten in an age wherein the term science-fiction has come to mean generically bland CGI splattered noisily across a screen. The appeal of Simak has apparently determined that those still reading his novels tend to be people who, like myself, don't like loud noises and probably come across as kind of boring to those who do.

Of course, no corner of the internet would be complete without a few disagreeable wankers, and we've even had to banish a few ornery varmints from the virtual stoop upon which we Simak readers perch with our pipes discussing how we all preferred the old beige before some dang fool tried to modernise it and only ended up making it worse; and there's Old Bill who seems eternally committed to proving that he loves Simak so much more than the rest of us, who signs his missives from the bluff, as though he's not sat whining at a fucking computer in a house with electricity, gas, and running water. Old Bill took particular issue with my views on Simaks' somewhat disappointing A Choice of Gods of 1972. I had the impression that Old Bill felt I should have consulted him before expressing an opinion, and he referred to things of which I would probably have had a better understanding had I grown up in the bosom of nature like what he did - oblivious to the fact that I lived on a farm for the first decade of my life.

Anyway, Roberto is one of the more communicative members of the group, even though he sometimes claims to struggle with English. We struck up some kind of rapport when he was ordering a framed print from an artist based somewhere in the American south-west. The problem was that the postage to Italy was extortionate, and in any case he didn't really care about the frame. In the end, he bought the print and had it delivered to me in San Antonio. I removed the artwork from the frame, repackaged it in a sturdy cardboard tube, and then mailed it to him from England when I flew back to visit my parents. It was a convoluted process, but he seemed happy and I was glad to be able to help out. He and his wife have been to America before, notably visiting the small town of Millville, Wisconsin in which Clifford D. Simak was born. This time they're visiting my end of the country, so it seems like an idea to meet up, and their holiday coinciding with Worldcon suggests itself as an opportunity of which we should probably take advantage.

Happily the kid is staying with his father this weekend, because since learning of visitors from Italy most of his conversation has been limited to jokes about Mario Brothers and pizza. It's already sufficiently nerve-racking meeting new people without having to worry about Junior breaking into a few verses of Do the Mario, regardless of the potential irony that he is himself vaguely Italian if you go back a couple of generations.

My wife and I pick Roberto and Rosanna up from their hotel, and I suddenly realise that I'm now the guy showing the out-of-towners around the place I live; which is weird because I was still the foreigner when I woke up this morning. I'm in a position equating to authority and I'm not sure I like it.

We go to eat at La Fonda which specialises in a local variation on Mexican food. It's been called Mexican food for people who don't like Mexican food, but that's really just snobbery and doesn't reflect the quality of what they serve. The place is no Blanco Cafe or Bandera Jalisco, but the food is nevertheless decent, and it seems a prudent choice given Roberto's stated suspicion of anything involving volcanically hot chillies.

We eat, trying not to dwell too long on matters of what Simak may have had for breakfast or who we think would have won in a fight between Simak and any other science-fiction author of his generation. We talk about life in Italy, England, and the United States, and how we all came to be here. Roberto's English is heavily accented but excellent, despite the doubts he has expressed in his virtual missives. He is a little older than I am and reminds me of Carl Sagan. He perhaps speaks slowly for fear of not being understood, but his caution gives his words surprising gravity which works well in conjunction with a powerfully dry sense of humour. Rosanna, his wife, speaks no English but Roberto translates, and her Italian sounds sufficiently close to Spanish for Bess and I to follow the general thrust of what she says. My fears were that this initial meeting might seem incredibly awkward, but we've had a wonderful time.

We meet again the next day. It's Saturday afternoon and Worldcon is in full swing, but we've agreed that we don't really care for much of it. We just want to browse for books we haven't read in the dealers' room, so we're going to do that on Sunday morning because it will work out the cheapest in terms of admission. It's Saturday afternoon and we meet in the heart of San Antonio at their hotel. Bess drops me off so I'm on my own with the visitors and another guy, Kevin who has travelled a couple of hundred miles from somewhere in the north-east of the state, a town on the Louisiana border. He's another fan of Simak and he's here for the Worldcon and to meet Roberto and myself. He's young and chatty, and he seems like a nice guy but our meeting under such circumstances makes me feel somehow uncomfortable.

Meeting was once easy. You went to the pub, and beer and ciggies would do the rest, and even if the person or persons you were meeting turned out to be arseholes, you wouldn't mind because - fuck it - it was a night out. Unfortunately though I no longer smoke, and I'm no longer particularly keen on the booze, and in any case they don't really have pubs in America, just bars, which are a different thing entirely. Meeting is no longer something I do so I'm out of practice, and bereft of a common purpose involving alcohol or tobacco, I'm no longer even sure how it's done. Additionally, one version of the story has this as my home town and I'm showing my friends around; but I've only been here two years and I'm still pretty much lost past the end of our road; and Kevin is a genuine American so he's showing us around by default, taking the lead, which I somehow find both annoying and at the same time a great relief.

I know, I feel like saying as Kevin explains something else without having been asked, I live here, and yet I'm aware that it's not like I'm actually bringing anything useful to the table.

We wander through the Alamo, or at least through the church because it requires no admission fee, but the day is baking hot and it's beginning to feel like we're just using up the time for reasons no-one has quite defined. We could talk about Simak as we wander around the city, but I'm feeling increasingly uncomfortable about Rosanna's partially inevitable exclusion from the conversation.

Kevin mentions Jethro Tull for some reason, and I tell him that I also enjoy their music, prompting his thoughts on the same at a level of detail far beyond anything I've ever cared about. I just listen to the records because I like how they sound, and it feels like I'm being lectured. The only note of accord we strike comes when someone mentions Old Bill who writes from the bluff. It seems we are all at least united in considering him a bit of an idiot.

We go for ice cream at Baskin-Robbins for the sake of something to do, but the place has no tables and we end up all ludicrously squatted along the low window-ledge outside the place watching our fellow tourists crowd into the Alamo. It's too hot and it's difficult to talk and ice cream is dripping onto my hand faster than I can lick it from the cone.

For fuck's sake...

Rosanna takes a photograph of the three of us, the Simak dudes. I resemble Sir Les Patterson in a stetson, which irritates me so much as to inspire the realisation that I must take charge and rescue this encounter from itself, this meeting which isn't so much a meeting as a random juxtaposition of people who vaguely know each other. Rosanna's only concern is that she gets to pick up a few artsy-crafty things for the folks back in Italy, so I've decided that's what she's going to do. I know just the place. There's a massive craft market over by Mi Tierra cafe and bakery, and it's a Mexican craft market so they have great stuff there - hand-made and hand-painted and absolutely no tat, and there's really nothing which is ever considered too weird for sale in a Mexican craft market, so they're always great places to look around even if you're not buying.

I am going to lead my people forth across the town of San Antonio unto the Mexican craft market, and they will see that it is good, and Rosanna shall be happy, and everyone wins. So we trek and we trek following Commerce past the hotel where Roberto and Rosanna are staying, and at each corner we stop and I tell them it's only a little further; but eventually we realise that it isn't, and it's ninety in the shade. Roberto thanks me for making the effort, but he and his wife feel the need to get back into the air conditioning of their hotel. Later I realise I had been leading my people east along Commerce, and Mi Tierra is west. I've only been here a couple of years. I don't have much cause to visit the centre of the city.

Next morning, Kevin, Roberto and myself convene at the entrance of Worldcon. We stump up an admission fee and go and buy books. Roberto's face lights up as he encounters a brace of early editions of Simak novels with covers he's never seen. He has a long talk with the dealer working the stall and I get the impression that this might be the highlight of his visit. It makes me happy for him. I pick up a few books for myself, and the three of us talk about what we've read, what we would like to read, who sounds interesting and so on.

'This guy is supposed to be pretty good,' Kevin observes picking up a novel by Mark Hodder, so I get to be the arsehole who had the bloke in the back of his cab, once again.

We marvel at the Lego and eventually leave as the place starts to close, each going his separate way, Kevin back to the north-east, Roberto to the hotel and eventually to Italy.

It ended well.

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