I grew up in the little town of Nederland, Texas, squeezed between Beaumont and Port Arthur like a pimple full of petroleum. I hated it. (Sorry, Nederland, it’s the truth.) The main attractions of that area, known as the Golden Triangle (Orange, Texas, is the third point), were humidity, hurricanes, mosquitoes the size of Nazi dive bombers, and a perpetual petrochemical stink from the five giant refineries in the county.
Nederland was all-white. All the black people in the area lived in Beaumont’s or Port Arthur’s niggertowns. (I have to use that word that we are never supposed to utter or write or even know these days, because “N-Word Town” or “Racial Epithet Town” just doesn’t tell you how really vile it was.)
Through some mistake made by a disoriented stork in 1947, though I was destined to be a Big City Boy I was left under the wrong cabbage leaf, and had to grow up in a small town. The local “big city” is Houston, 93 miles away, and Houston is just more sweat, storms, skeeters, and stink. New Orleans is 277 miles away. Dallas is more cosmopolitan than Houston, but it’s 298 miles to Big D. Los Angeles is approximately 4.3 light-years from Nederland, and New York City about the same. I got out of there pretty much the day after I graduated, and have only been back a few times for a day or two, and that only because I had relatives there.
My chief escape from the place in the days when I was too young to physically leave came in 1960, when Arthur Green, the librarian at C.O. Wilson Junior High, handed me a book by Robert A. Heinlein, titled Red Planet. It was a well-worn copy, already over a decade old, and it was in a library binding, but it had the wonderful Clifford Geary illustrations. (I didn’t need pictures in a novel, but it didn’t hurt.) My life changed that evening as I read it from cover to cover. And again the next day. Without that book … well, there’s really no telling what my life would have been like, but I can’t imagine it could have been any better. So thanks, Mr. Green. I kept in contact with him right up to his death a few years ago.
Science fiction was a difficult habit to support at that age. I quickly went through all the novels in the C.O. Wilson library, and the children’s sections of the Port Arthur and Beaumont libraries. I then scoured the entire adult fiction sections, book spine by book spine, looking for likely titles because I didn’t know the names of any science fiction authors. There weren’t many.
The age of the pulps was over, but there were still a few magazines on the newsstands. (Remember newsstands?) Every month I had to scrounge up 50¢ each for copies of Galaxy and Analog, 40¢ for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and 35¢ each for Worlds of If, Amazing, and Fantastic. That’s $2.45, which is about $24,500 in 2019 money. I had to mow a lot of lawns. Luckily, lawns grew fast in the Texas Gulf Coast climate, though it didn’t seem lucky at the time, sweating in 90 degree heat and 90% humidity.)
Then there was the matter of paperback books. Most of them sold for 35¢, but a few were up to 40¢, and by the time I graduated some of them were going for an outrageous 75¢! And there were a lot of them, and I had to have them all. So what was a hopelessly addicted Texas boy to do?
Shoplift, that’s what. For the first and only time in my life I stole things that didn’t belong to me. Mostly it was from a little grocery store called O’Bannion’s, an easy bike ride from my home. Every time I stuffed a 35¢ Ace Double Novel down the front of my jeans and headed for the street I fully expected to feel the hard hand of Mr. O’Bannion on my shoulder and to be thrown in the back of a police car, disgracing my family, making me unfit for decent human company, and forever ruining my chances of going to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The theft would go on my permanent record!
But one half of that Ace Double was Secret Agent of Terra, a new short novel by John Brunner! I simply had to have it, even at the risk of having my girlfriend dump me, my friends abandon me, and my family throw me out into the street. (Some years later I had dinner in Paris with John and his wife, Marjorie. That’s Paris, France, not Paris, Texas. They were wonderful, charming company. And John had read my books!) (I didn’t tell him I had stolen his.)
I’m not sure how many books I boosted from O’Bannion’s and a few other stores. Thirty? Forty? My bowels froze every time, but I kept doing it until my best friend, hard-luck Calvin Stanley, got caught the first time he tried shoplifting. He was not abandoned by his family, but he was grounded for a month.
So I stopped. I have felt guilty about it for about fifty years now, even thought about going back and paying for the books (which would come to about $240,000, with inflation and interest) but the store has changed hands several times. I’m sure the current owners would think I’m crazy. It’s the Helena Drive-In now, a Mobil gas station/convenience store. Discount tobacco, beer, and wine.
* * *
As I said, New York was an impossible distance from my home. I had the vague idea that the magazines and books were published there, and that people called editors chose the stories. I became aware that there were things called “science fiction conventions,” where all these writers and readers got together from time to time. There was news of some of these gatherings in the magazines. None of them were happening in Houston, which was as far as I was allowed to drive Dad’s 1960 Pontiac with the 389c.i. engine. (It would go 120 mph. I checked.) I probably couldn’t have afforded the admission, anyway.
At some point it seeped into my consciousness that there were these things called Hugo Awards, which were given out at the World Science Fiction Convention, the Worldcon, held in a different city every year. All of those cities were at least one or two parsecs away. Once it was in London, which was in another galaxy entirely.
I probably first learned of the Hugos from a book cover, most likely Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man, or Robert A. Heinlein’s Double Star or Starship Troopers. HUGO AWARD-WINNING NOVEL!, the cover blurb would have announced.
Other Best Novel winners which I read at that time were A Case of Conscience by James Blish, The Big Time by Fritz Leiber, and A Canticle For Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. By the time Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land came along, I was pretty familiar with the award, and even knew what it looked like. From the very first one in 1953 right up to the present day the prize itself has varied hardly at all, being a slim silver rocket ship with four fins. (It is known, irreverently, as the steel suppository or the silver dildo.) The base is different for every year, but that rocket is a constant.
Back then, I could not have possibly imagined that I would one day be given that award.
Well, that’s a lie, of course. I could imagine it all I wanted. I could also, and did, imagine myself being the first Texan to land on Mars. I could imagine myself formulating a Grand Unified Field Theory, bringing together the relativity equations of Einstein with the quantum mechanics of Max Planck, but I’d probably have to learn calculus first, and I never did. I could imagine myself marrying Claudia Cardinale or Ann-Margaret. (Actually, marriage didn’t really enter into that imagining, but I don’t want to get too X-rated here.) Any of those things seemed about equally as likely as me winning a Hugo.
But I gave it a shot. I wrote a four-page story, pecking it out painstakingly on a borrowed typewriter. I can’t recall anything at all about that story. I sent it off to Mr. H.L. Gold, the editor of Galaxy, my favorite magazine at that time. He sent it back with a form rejection slip, and he had written at the bottom: “Nice try, but not quite.”
You think I was disappointed? Not a bit! Those five words, from a man who lived in New York City and edited the finest magazine in the world, just had me walking on air. I’d have framed that rejection slip and hung it on the wall if I could have afforded a frame. Of course, all my money was going to books and magazines.
I later learned that Gold suffered from severe agoraphobia. For twenty years he edited the magazine from his apartment, which he never left. Most of his contact with people was by mail and telephone.
Years passed. I kept reading but didn’t write any more stories. I graduated high school. I did well on the SATs, and a few institutions of higher learning offered me full National Merit Scholarships. (M.I.T. rejected me: No calculus.) Michigan State University was the one most distant from Southeast Texas, so I went there, and learned what winter was all about.
Things were happening in the world outside academia, which never appealed to me much, anyway. Dr. Timothy Leary counselled us to “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” I did it backwards, dropping out, then tuning in to the new groove, and finally turning on to LSD. Acid was … interesting, but not my bag. I stopped reading science fiction for eight years. I was too busy looking for America, as Paul Simon sang. I looked everywhere, crisscrossing the country several times while avoiding the tear gas, the draft, and Texas.
Then one day I stumbled across a paperback copy of Larry Niven’s Ringworld, and got hooked all over again. (It was the famous first edition, where Larry has the Earth rotating the wrong way.) There was new, exciting stuff being done in the field. I had largely missed the New Wave, but these stories resonated with me. Larry didn’t know it, but he had changed my life as surely as Mr. Green did. A few years ago I finally got the opportunity to thank him.
What the hell. Maybe I’d give it another shot. Maybe I could write fiction like this new stuff.
Turns out I couldn’t, at least not at first. I wrote a novel in longhand with a ballpoint pen, typed it up with two smudgy carbons, and sent it to six publishers in a row. None of them thought it was a potential Hugo winner. None of them thought it was even publishable, actually. And they were right. It stunk. It could have been used in a classroom as a frightening example of all the things a beginning writer should not do.
So I retreated, made a more modest attempt at a novelette. It was 10,000 words long … and Mr. Ed Ferman at F&SF bought it! He sent a check for $200. Even then, 2¢/word didn’t seem like much (it was about what magazines were paying in 1939), but who cared? In due time I was holding a copy of a magazine with a story of mine in it. F&SF, August 1974, just in time for my 27th birthday. And if you think reading science fiction is addictive, let me assure you, publishing it is an order of magnitude better.
I couldn’t have known it at the time, but I was started down the road that would lead to me accepting one of those silver rocketships. I would prefer that to being the first Texan on Mars or marrying Ann-Margaret any day.
* * *
Hugo Short Fiction Introductions
1977 Best Novelette Hugo Ballot
Winner: Isaac Asimov, “The Bicentennial Man” (Stellar #2)
Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Diary of the Rose” (Future Power)
John Varley, “Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance” (Galaxy)
John Varley, “The Phantom of Kansas” (Galaxy)
SunCon, Fontainebleu Hotel, Miami Beach, Florida
“The Phantom of Kansas”
Most people would agree that, though there are dozens of wonderful awards given out for science fiction writing, the two major ones are the Hugo and the Nebula. The Hugo is voted on by the fans who buy either an attending or a supporting membership in the Worldcon for that year. The Nebulas are voted on each year by the membership of the SFWA, the Science Fiction Writers of America (pronounced SEF-wa or SIFF-wa, depending on who you’re talking to), an organization of professionals. It was founded in 1965 by my dear friend, the late Damon Knight.
The award itself is beautiful, a transparent rectangular prism made of Lucite with a spiral galaxy embedded at the top. It was designed by my other dear, departed friend, Kate Wilhelm, who was Damon’s wife. My Nebulas contain lovely rose quartz crystals at the bottoms, but today they have little planets instead. (Don’t tell anybody, but I think the new ones are a little tacky.)
The Nebula never figured into my fantasies for the simple reason that when I was at my fantasizing peak, it didn’t exist. I never imagined Ann-Margaret turning over in bed and handing me one. The awards are given out at a gathering known as the Nebula Weekend. The award ceremony is a banquet held in a hotel, usually in New York or Los Angeles in the early days. These days it’s apt to be just about anywhere.
* * *
1977 was not the first year I was up for a major award. In 1976 I was on the Nebula ballot. It was an unusually long ballot that year:
“San Diego Lightfoot Sue”, Tom Reamy (F&SF Aug 1975)
“The Bleeding Man”, Craig Strete (Galaxy Dec 1974)
“Blooded on Arachne”, Michael Bishop (Epoch)
“The Custodians”, Richard Cowper (F&SF Oct 1975)
“The Dybbuk Dolls”, Jack Dann (New Dimensions 5)
“The Final Fighting of Fion Mac Cumhail”, Randall Garrett (F&SF Sep 1975)
“A Galaxy Called Rome”, Barry N. Malzberg (F&SF Jul 1975
“The New Atlantis”, Ursula K. Le Guin (The New Atlantis)
“Polly Charms, the Sleeping Woman”, Avram Davidson (F&SF Feb 1975
“Retrograde Summer”, John Varley (F&SF Feb 1975)
“The Warlord of Saturn’s Moons”, Eleanor Arnason (New Worlds 6)
The banquet was held at the Century Plaza in Los Angeles. I’m not even sure I knew about it. In any case, I couldn’t afford to attend. The well-deserved Nebula was won by Tom Reamy. Tom was a long-time and big-time fan who had recently burst onto the scene as a writer, with story after story that blew everyone away. He finished his first novel, Blind Voices, which was later nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula, but never got to see it published. He died of a heart attack at age 42, shortly after receiving this Nebula. It was one of the major losses in the field, a soaring new talent taken from us far too young. I’m glad he won the Nebula, and not just for sentimental, weepy reasons. I believe his story was better than mine.
When coming up with the concept for this collection I debated whether or not to include Nebula-nominated stories. In the end, I decided not to. For one thing, most of those were also nominated for the Hugo. (“Retrograde Summer”) is an exception.) For another, the title And the Hugo or Nebula Award Goes to … just didn’t have that ring, you know? I guess I could have come up with another title, but the book was already thick enough.
* * *
So the first novelette I will comment on will be “The Phantom of Kansas.” And I have a bit of a quandary. You can ask anybody, I am not a man prone to bragging. As I just said above, I thought Tom Reamy’s Nebula story was better than mine. That will happen again in this volume. I will call them as I see them. If someone else’s story is better than mine, I’ll say so.
So I will take a deep breath here, and say …
… “The Phantom of Kansas” should have won. It was a better story than Isaac Asimov’s “The Bicentennial Man.” (In 1999 Asimov’s story was made into a not-very-good film starring Robin Williams and directed by Chris Columbus. It was a box office bomb, making back $58,000,000 from a $100,000,000 budget.)
If you look at the ballot up there at the top, you will notice two things.
1) There are only four stories nominated. Usually, it’s five.
2) Two of them were written by John Varley.
I was informed of the nominations by another dear, departed friend, Charles N. Brown, founder and publisher of Locus: The Magazine of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Field. He urged me to request that one of the stories be withdrawn from consideration. The thinking is, in cases like this, that you will split the vote. Others agreed with him.
I probably should have, but something about it didn’t feel right. The decision I made was to let them both remain. Should I have removed one? (It would have been “Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance.”) From the standpoint of winning the Hugo, probably so. But I was so stunned and honored to be the listed on the same piece of paper with giants like Asimov and Le Guin that I frankly didn’t feel all that bad when I lost.
Still, I maintain my story was better.
I met Doctor A once, at a convention in Philadelphia where he had been brought in to introduce me as the Guest of Honor. To say I was honored would be the understatement of the millennium. The Good Doctor was ebullient and witty, everything he was cracked up to be. Of course, I am not a woman on a crowded elevator. In cases like that, Asimov could be a real asshole.
Ursula and I never became close friends, but we met for panels and lunches several times over the years. She was intense, super intelligent, eloquent, and always put me at ease within the first minute. She died recently, and is badly missed.
I rank “The Phantom of Kansas” in with the best stories I have ever written. It is also potentially the most cinematic. It would make a terrific movie, if I do say so myself. It has been optioned several times, but nothing came of it. I wrote a screenplay myself, many years ago.
If any of you readers know someone with about $150,000,000 to invest in a sure-fire box office smash, let me know. The rights are available.
“Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance”
High school was not the living hell for me that it seems to have been for so many people. (Small town Nederland was hell, but high school was a welcome retreat from all that. I had a good time.)
Two things stand out from those three years.
The second-best thing that happened in high school began as a disaster. The school board was experimenting with an accelerated curriculum. We studied the much reviled “New Math,” with its set theory and Venn diagrams. I thought it was kind of cool. And a group of a dozen of us brainiacs were enrolled in what was going to be advanced classes in physics. Previously only one year had been offered. Now they were going to let us take Physics I in our junior year, and Physics II as seniors.
Then the board didn’t renew the contract for Ms. Gloria Hamilton, the only person on the faculty qualified to teach an advanced physics class. We “accelerated” students were left hanging.
Most of us found alternative classes to attend. Physics I would now be taught by Mr. Broussard from the biology department, a man who didn’t know a joule from a jujube. (Amazing aside: the biology department was well staffed with three teachers: Mr. Broussard, Mr. Goss, and Mr. Love. And all three of them were one-eyed! What are the chances?)
I don’t recall just how this crazy-sounding solution was negotiated, but three of us, myself, my friends Phil Richie and Danny Kelly (3/4 of the French horn section in the band! What are the chances?) ended up teaching first-year physics while Mr. Broussard sat on his Cajun derriere and snoozed. It was fun! We knew the material, and we knew the students, none of whom were stupid. I found I enjoyed teaching, but I’ve never done it again.
I said that teaching physics was the second really cool thing about my high school career. The best thing, hands down, was being in the Nederland High School band, the Golden Pride of the Golden Triangle. I played a baritone horn, also known as a euphonium, during football season, which was also marching season. I was second-chair French horn during the concert season, which was all the rest of the year.
Again, like I said before, I’m not usually one to brag, but here it’s not just me, and I have to. We were good! We had the full trophy case to prove it. At competitions we always won First Divisions. We attempted and usually performed symphonic pieces that were very challenging. In 1961 we were chosen as the band to represent the state of Texas in the inaugural parade for John F. Kennedy in Washington, D.C. (That was two years before I made it to high school, dang it.)
You may be wondering what all this has to do with “Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance.” Well, the physics bit, nothing at all. I just like to tell that story. But this novelette tells of a symbiotic relationship between humans and a genetically manufactured organism that enables the two of them to survive in the rings of Saturn without spaceship or spacesuit. The symbs are the spacesuit, feeding the human and recycling the waste.
The symbs are sentient, and in mental contact with the humans. This gestalt, the addition of one plus one to equal more than two, results in the composition of music unlike any other. The music is in demand enough that individuals are able to sell it and buy the things they still need to get by.
In one scene march music is featured. This reflects my lifelong love of marches. I am not martial at all, but having played so many of them in the class that mattered the most to me in school just brings back so many happy memories. I put this in another story, my novel Wizard, the second book of my Gaea trilogy. All the chapter titles in that book are the titles of marches.
As for the title, I am also a lifelong devotee of musicals, both Broadway and Hollywood. The big showstopper in Singin’ in the Rain, is Gene Kelly singing and dancing to the theme of Gotta Dance! And of course when sound was added to the flicks in the 1920s, the first musicals were advertised as All Talking! All Singing! All Dancing!
So there you have it. Now I will leave you with Barnum and her symbiote, Bailey, and a URL to “Barnum and Bailey’s Favorite” by Mr. Karl L. King, which we played many times.
* * *
1978 Best Novella Hugo Ballot
Winner: Spider and Jeanne Robinson, “Stardance” (Analog)
John Varley, “In the Hall of the Martian Kings (F&SF)
Vonda N. McIntyre, “Aztecs” (2076:The American Tricentennial)
Gregory Benford, “A Snark in the Night” (F&SF)
Keith Laumer, “The Wonderful Secret” (Analog)
IguanaCon II, Hyatt Regency Hotel, Phoenix, Arizona
“In the Hall of the Martian Kings”
The 36th World Science Fiction Convention, known as IguanaCon II (though there had never been an IguanaCon I; go figure) was held in Phoenix at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, the Convention Center, and the Symphony Hall from August 30th to September 4th. Temperatures soared to around 190 F. With the wind-chill factor it was only around 180. That’s how I remember it, anyway. I was there, along with 4,700 others. It was my first WorldCon.
I was staying at the Hyatt, but not on a bed. Not the first night, anyway. I crashed on the floor of a friend. I rode down to Phoenix from Eugene, Oregon, scrunched up in the back seat of an old beater, along with five or six others. Maybe it was only two. Air conditioning? Don’t make me laugh. We drove at night as much as we could.
No one else in the car had ever heard of me. No one else knew that I had two stories on the Hugo ballot that year. No one at the convention knew that I was coming, and very few knew I was there after I arrived. See, even though I had sold several stories by then, most of them paid the same 2¢/word I got for my first sale, and even in 1978 that didn’t stretch very far. I was poor, poor, poor.
No one knew I was there because I wasn’t, not officially, anyway. I couldn’t afford the membership, which I think was around $1.98. So I didn’t attend the Hugo ceremony, or the art show, or the dealers’ room, because you needed a badge for those things. During the day I mostly hung out in the halls and lobbies with characters like Filthy Pierre, who continuously played a weird wind-powered keyboard and sometimes sang songs that weren’t all that filthy.
At night I went to parties in the rooms and hallways and drank a lot of beer. In those days bidding committees vying for the chance of hosting a WorldCon a few years down the road filled bathtubs with ice and brew and set out tables full of food, and it was all free. It was tons of fun.
(These days … not so much, judging from the few cons I have attended recently. No hall parties. No real open-door parties. No smoking, anywhere. I don’t smoke anymore, but I did back then, as did a whole lot of fans. Very little fun these days, frankly, compared to the smoke-choked beer-fueled Good Old Days, in my opinion.)
It was only my fourth convention ever, the first being a Westercon in Oakland where I met lifelong friends Pro Guest of Honor David Gerrold, to whom I had just sold a story, and Fan GoH Charlie Brown. I arrived at that one in the back seat of a battered old car belonging to a friend, too: a Karmann Ghia on its last legs. I remember going up hills around Lake Shasta where the speed would drop to 20 mph. We almost had to get out and push.
The title of “In the Hall of the Martian Kings” is an obvious play on a familiar piece by Edvard Grieg. I was never satisfied with it, but I never came up with a better one.
The co-winners that year were Spider and Jeanne Robinson for their novella “Stardance,” that would soon be expanded into a novel with the same title, which also won the Hugo. That, in turn, would become the basis for a trilogy, along with Starseed in 1991 and Starmind in 1995. Stardance was Spider’s second novel. Jeanne was a dancer, and together they explored the idea of zero-gravity dance. Sadly, she died nine years ago. IguanaCon was where I first met Spider and Jeanne, and we hit it off instantly. Spider is one of my closest friends.
If I had to lose an award, losing it to the Robinsons was probably the least painful way it could happen. Once again, they had a better story than mine. As in the case of Tom Reamy, what set “Stardance” apart from mine was the depth of human emotion Spider and Jeanne accomplished. My story was clever, no more. As for the others … I can’t recall anything about Keith Laumer’s “The Wonderful Secret” or Greg Benford’s “A Snark in the Night.” I’m sure Vonda’s entry displayed her usual sharp insights and deep compassion. They always did. And dammit, there’s another dear friend taken from us, just two months ago as I write this on 6/8/19.
I’ll say something here about covers. I have frequently gotten complaints from readers, informing me that the cover of a book or a magazine had little or nothing to do with the story itself. Well, no shit! They don’t seem to realize that artists are not always even presented with a copy of the story to read before taking airbrush to canvas. At other times they are rushed. And, frankly, every once in a while they have every opportunity to do a good one, and just fuck it up badly.
The cover of the February, 1977 issue of F&SF was the best I ever got. It perfectly portrayed a scene from my story. It was by Rick Sternbach, a guy I met right around that time and who I haven’t seen in far too long. Thanks again, Rick!
Oh, and I have to mention that this story was honored with a Jupiter Award. These were handed out for only four years, 1974 to 1978, by the Instructors of Science Fiction in High Education. Teachers! Teaching science fiction in schools and colleges! The very idea would have seemed impossible when I first started reading “that spaceship trash.” Other winners of the Jupiter were Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Sheckley, Robert Silverberg, Norman Spinrad, Clifford Simak, Gordon R. Dickson, and “James Tiptree, Jr.,” so I was in good company.
* * *
1978 Best Short Story Hugo Ballot
Winner: Harlan Ellison, “Jeffty is Five” (F&SF)
John Varley (as “Herb Boehm), “Air Raid” (Asimov’s)
Spider Robinson, “Dog Day Evening” (Analog)
Randall Garrett, “Lauralyn” (Analog)
James Tiptree, Jr., “Time-Sharing Angel” (F&SF)
The other story I had on the ballot that hot Labor Day weekend in Arizona was in the short story category. Elsewhere (in The John Varley Reader) I have described at great length how this little story became a ten-year project and eventually resulted in a not-really-great movie, Millennium. No need to recount all that here. Buy a copy if you want the whole long, grim story.
Let’s return to IguanaCon.
That year the Pro GoH was Harlan Ellison. Where Harlan goes, trouble usually happens, but it’s always righteous trouble. This time it was the fact that many people wanted to boycott Arizona because of the state’s refusal to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. (They still haven’t, and we only need one more.) They wished to spend no money in the state, but most of us couldn’t afford the gesture. Not Harlan. He solved it by bringing in his own food and living in an RV, like movie stars did on location. He didn’t sequester himself in the trailer, he was out and around a lot, but I never had the chance to connect with him. That would come several years later, after I sold him a story for The Last Dangerous Visions. The book still hasn’t been published, and now that Harlan is dead (still hard to believe, isn’t it? Guys like Harlan don’t die) it probably won’t be.
I guess it was appropriate that Harlan would win the Hugo for “Jeffty is Five,” where a deeply felt story once again outclassed my entry, which had as its main virtues an interesting premise and a pace to outrun a road runner with a cattle prod up its ass.
So running the totals so far, with three out of the four stories I’ve written about I really can’t really disagree with the outcome. In only one do I feel I got robbed. I told you I wasn’t by nature a braggart.
The other main thing notable about my experience at IguanaCon was a certain sexual freedom running rampant. It was still the era of free love, or maybe it’s more accurate to say that that era had not totally passed yet.
I remember Susan Wood and a contingent of a few dozen Canadians stripping naked one night and liberating the hotel pool out there in the darkness of the Hyatt roof, soon to be joined by lots of other skinny-dippers. Susan liked to bounce on the diving board in her birthday suit and shout out that she was a Master of Literature attending a serious literary conference before cannonballing.
I recall stretching out at the bottom of Dave Hartwell’s spa pool in the Penguin suite with two well-known female authors while Dave serenaded us with Gilbert and Sullivan patter songs. Nobody cared that we were all nude.
On a more cerebral note, I remember later sitting on a window ledge with Dave and Samuel R. “Chip” Delaney, feet dangling over Phoenix twenty stories below, having a very deep, serious discussion. The next day I couldn’t remember a single thing we had talked about.
And I remember getting laid for the first (but far from the last) time at a convention. Is it too tacky to mention that? I hope not. It’s the way it was, like with the drinking and carousing and smoking.
And it solved the problem of sleeping on the floor. I spent all nights but the first as the guest of a woman whose name you might know if you are a fan. The lady is dead now, and even forcing me to watch hours and hours of rallies starring President Whiny Little Bitch could not force me to divulge her name.
The fact is that there were plenty of young women quite willing to sooth my wounded ego for losing not one but two Hugos in the same night. Some not-so-young, too. I wasn’t discriminatory. Later I found that when you actually won one and carried it around from party to party it was a matter of picking which one I liked the most. Okay, maybe this is too gross, but I’m going to leave it in.
* * *
1979 Novelette Hugo Ballot
Winner: Poul Anderson, “Hunter’s Moon” (Analog)
Orson Scott Card, “Mikal’s Songbird” (Analog)
Thomas Disch, “The Man Who Had No Idea” (F&SF)
Dean Ing, “Devil You Don’t Know” (Analog)
John Varley, “The Barbie Murders” (Asimov’s)
Seacon ’79, Metropole Hotel, Brighton, United Kingdom
“The Barbie Murders”
As is so often the case in science fiction, the science catches up to the fiction, and sometimes destroys it. In fact, it frequently destroys it. Some damn astronomer somewhere out in the vast dark looks through his telescope and discovers something, and suddenly your story is not only outdated, it’s wrong.
A prime example of this is the planet Mercury. All through my childhood it was thought that Mercury was tide-locked, always keeping the same face to the sun. Then when some spoil-sport bounced radar waves off of it, that turned out to be not the case. It was tide-locked, all right, but in a 3:2 spin resonance. That means that every two years (orbits around the sun) Mercury experiences three days (turns around its axis). It also means that scores of science fiction stories based on a Mercury that always turned the same face to the sun were now wrong.
Oddly enough, this particular discovery actually worked to my advantage. I was able to base one of my stories, “Retrograde Summer,” around this new information. It’s an ill wind …
I could cite hundreds of examples of this. I’m not counting space operas from the ‘30s (or from 2018, for that matter) that use ideas like faster than light travel. No one has proven that FTL is impossible. But that would require more research than I’m ready to do, and wouldn’t have much to do with this story. (Not that I’ve let that hamper me so far, I know, I know.)
There are also the cases of stories that use technology that is simply outdated, almost gone, or completely gone. Robert A. Heinlein sent spaceships to the stars with astrogators using slide rules, or tables of logarithms. Well, why not? Neither he nor anyone else anticipated or could even have imagined the computer revolution in the days before the transistor was even invented.
These are still good stories, but let’s face it, they are also a bit awkward.
I have the same problem with this story. The central problem is: How can you find a murderer among hundreds or thousands of people who look exactly alike?
Well, how about DNA? They have been surgically altered, maybe even down to the fingerprints, but their cell structure would be the same as always. Of course, in 1979 we didn’t know how to use polymerase chain reaction to identify and differentiate DNA samples. That wasn’t done until 1988, when the British obtained samples from 5,500 men and found one Colin Pitchfork, a rapist/murderer. As late as 1995 DNA evidence was still viewed as some sort of voodoo, when Johnny Cochran was able to convince twelve gullible Angelinos that it was suspicious science.
Well, fine. It’s still a good story, I hope, even with the outdated technology.
I know nothing at all about the winning story by Poul Anderson. Wikipedia does not have a summary. The story by Tom Disch has a one-liner that tells me little. Orson’s story sounds interesting, and was later expanded into a novel.
The story that had me worried the most was the one by my friend Dean Ing. I felt pretty sure that it would win. All these years later I still recall it, and remember the impact it had on me. Instead, Dean had the sad task of bringing the Hugo I did win back from London through customs, who looked oddly at the x-ray machine, but let him aboard, anyway.
* * *
1979 Novella Hugo Ballot
Winner: John Varley, “The Persistence of Vision” (F&SF)
Joan D. Vinge, “Fireship” (Analog)
Christopher Priest, “The Watched” (F&SF)
Brian Aldiss, “Enemies of the System” (F&SF)
Gene Wolfe, “Seven American Nights” (Orbit #20)
“The Persistence of Vision”
This was my fifth nomination, and my first win. As I said, I couldn’t make it to London to be presented with it. Still couldn’t afford trips like that. I had already received the Nebula Award for the story, and for that one I was actually present in New York. My publisher had learned that I had won, and flew me out there and paid my expenses. You think they would do that today? Ha! Don’t make me laugh.
My mother was there, proud as could be, and my agent, the late Kirby McCauley and his sister Kay, and my editor at Quantum-Dell, Jim Frenkel. I got to meet Ed Ferman, the editor at The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, the man who had bought the story. It was a giddy night. I couldn’t let go of that hunk of Lucite. George RR Martin was organizing Nebula Losers Parties at banquets in those days, and Hugo Losers Parties at WorldCons. I crashed this one, and nobody threw me out.
When I set out to write these introductions I vowed not to re-hash things I had already written in the intros to stories in The John Varley Reader. I’m afraid I can’t do that here. So first, let me repeat myself and say that this is the story I will be remembered for, if I am remembered at all. (Let’s get real. You think anyone will be reading John Varley in the 24½ century? I just hope I’m remembered in 2050, when the ice caps melt.)
More people have written to me to say this story changed their lives than all my other stories put together. By the end of it, many people have told me they are weeping. I was crying when I typed the last page. I just read the last few pages a few minutes ago, and my eyes are still watering. I don’t know what it is that can move people so. I don’t know what it is that moves me so. But it’s there, and it’s the best thing I ever wrote. Creating one story like this one is something that you’re lucky if it happens once in your life. I’d be surprised if it happened again, but I’m open to the possibility.
On a completely different note …
In the February issue of F&SF Thomas Disch, a well-respected author, essayist, and reviewer, offered his opinion on three books: The Best Science Fiction of the Year #9, edited by Terry Carr; Best Science Fiction Stories of the Year, edited by Gardner Dozois; and The 1980 Annual World’s Best SF, edited by Donald A. Wollheim and Arthur W. Saha.
He drew several conclusions.
First, that not only were many of these stories not the best of the year, they were not even very good. He was particularly savage on Ed Bryant’s sly and wonderful short story “giANTS,” which went on to get a Hugo nomination and win the Nebula Award. This was bad enough, but for the rest of the review Disch referred to Ed BryANT. I thought this was a cheap shot, not worthy of a serious critic. It’s more like a Donald Trump insult.
Second, that the tables of contents were oddly similar. The editors seemed to have agreed on most of the stories. Conspiracy? Well, no, he didn’t assert that, just a general “clubbiness” in the field. And he viewed the fact that these four editors tended to like the same stuff with great suspicion.
Third, he detected the presence of something he called the Labor Day Group. This was basically the new generation of SF writers, the ones that came after his group, which was known as the New Wave. He felt that the New Wave had failed, and my impression was that he felt that was not because the stories written by his generation were not any good, but that science fiction readers were too dense or lacked sufficient sophistication to understand them.
He already had my hackles up. For one thing, I had stories in all three of those anthologies. For another, the membership of the Labor Day Group was George RR Martin, Vonda McIntyre, Tanith Lee, Jack Dann, Ed Bryant, Michael Bishop … and your humble narrator, John Varley. Later he added in Orson Scott Card. Connie Willis was deemed a little too young for membership, and besides, she had only published one story at the time.
The source of the name came from the fact that he felt we were most likely to be seen together at WorldCons, which were traditionally held on the Labor Day weekend.
For the record, I had only been to one WorldCon at that point in my career, IguanaCon II, and I didn’t meet any of the LDG group except possibly George RR, I can’t recall for sure. I did meet Spider Robinson, who really deserved a place on our LDG roster, but was left on the bench for some reason. I would go to Chicon IV in 1982. I would be briefly at L.A. Con IV in 2006. And that is the extent of my WorldCon attendance. Three WorldCons, out of 46 I could have appeared at as a professional. So Disch’s term for us, at least, was ridiculous in my case. I have no idea how many LDGs members were actual regulars.
But his main point, and it was one that sort of took your breath away, was that the bunch of us worked hard to win the big awards, the Hugo and the Nebula. That we tailored our prose with fandom in mind, that we knew what they wanted, and we cynically whored ourselves to them in the hope of getting votes.
It was a fairly weird argument, as I think most people agreed at the time. So we were accused of … what? Writing the best stories we could? That’s all I ever did, all I ever have done. Did I think from time to time that it might be nice to win a Hugo for this story I’m writing? Guilty as charged. Did I ever alter one page, one paragraph, one word because I thought it might better appeal to the Hugo voters?
Never. Not a fucking word.
I have to say that a plaintive note crept in here and there in his tirade. Disch won a Hugo for Best Related Book (formerly Best Non-fiction Book) for The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of, a book of thoughts about science fiction. As for his fiction, he was twice nominated for a Hugo, and no less than nine times for a Nebula. Which clearly tells me that he was more respected among his peers than he was with readers … but not quite enough to get the actual Nebula. Part of me wonders if he was moved to belittle the LBG for our perceived eagerness to win awards because of his lack of success in getting one himself.
That may be unworthy of me and unfair to him. I never met Mr. Disch, but I read a few of his stories. They were well-done, but didn’t appeal to me. If I had met him it is quite likely that we could have hit it off famously, so long as he didn’t bring up the Labor Day Group. I have gotten along well with several writers with whom I have strong disagreements.
However, he is dead, and my words can no longer harm him (and he can no longer sue me for libel), so I will stick to the thought I had when I put down that issue of F&SF in February, 1981, which was “What an asshole!”
You can read the review itself here.
For a much more cogent, well-thought-out, nicely expressed examination of the review than my rather abrupt dismissal of the man, you can read the wonderful rebuttal offered by George RR Martin in a speech to the Los Angeles Science Fiction Society here.
* * *
1980 Best Novelette Hugo Ballot
Winner: George RR Martin, “Sandkings” (Omni)
Barry Longyear, “Homecoming” (Asimov’s)
Larry Niven, “The Locusts” (Analog)
Vonda N. McIntyre, “Fireflood” (F&SF)
John Varley, “Options” (Universe 9)
Christopher Priest, “Palely Loitering” (F&SF)
Noreascon Two, Sheraton-Boston Hotel, Boston, Massachusetts
No matter that Thomas Disch predicted my presumed location on Labor Day in 1980, I was not in Boston for Noreascon. I later saw a program book for that convention, and it had a lovely wraparound cover painted by Jane Mackenzie and Philip Hagopian. It depicts the Boston Public Garden, in which swan boats have been paddling since 1877. They are icons of Beantown, like cable cars are iconic to Frisco.
Seated in the boat are my dear departed friends Kate Wilhelm and Damon Knight, the pro guests of honor that year.
Operating the boat (which is powered just by paddling) is the fan guest, Bruce Pelz. On the shore is a woman in roller skates, Leslie Turek, the convention chair, near a horse with a mounted policeman.
The cop is the legendary Robert Silverberg, toastmaster. Bob has been at every Hugo Award ceremony, which boggles my mind. Hugos were first given in 1953, when he was 19. They skipped a year, but since 1955 they have been awarded yearly. That is 64 ceremonies. I’m glad to say that at some of them he took home some brass. I recently exchanged emails with Bob, and he confessed a little weariness with the streak, but if you’re Lou Gehrig and have hit in 56 consecutive games, you don’t skip the 57th because you have a hangnail. I suspect he will be there in Dublin in a few months, in Wellington for CoNZealand in 2020, and whatever city is chosen to host in 2021. (Right now only D.C. is bidding.) And many years thereafter, one hopes. If he wants to.
I was really wishing I could be there, because I had two stories on the ballot, and this time I was not competing against myself. In addition to “Options,” listed above for Best Novelette, I had a contender for Best Novel for the first time. It was for my second novel, Titan, the first of my Gaea Trilogy.
So I was on pins and needles that evening in Eugene, Oregon, wondering when the ceremony would take place back east. It was only about five when the phone rang. It was Harlan Ellison, who had inside information. The Hugos had not been awarded yet, but someone had told him that I had won both of the ones I was nominated for.
Congratulations all around!
Break out the champagne!
Call all your friends!
I’m glad I didn’t get around to that part, because if you’ve been paying attention you will have seen on the ballot above that George R.R. Martin won Best Novelette for his amazing story, “Sandkings.”
So what gives? I was soon to find out.
A bit later the phone rang again. It was my book editor at the time, John Silbersack, calling from Boston. I told him someone had already informed me of my double win.
There was a long silence. I’m sorry, John, you actually lost both of them. Who was it that told you?
I bit down on my tongue, hard. Never mind, John, thanks for calling.
A few minutes later the phone rang for the third time that night. Guess who? Poor Harlan was the very definition of contrite. He was abject, he was humiliated, he was falling all over himself apologizing. He asked me to please forgive him. I let him go on for a while, and then told him it was all right, I forgave him.
And I did forgive him, actually. Not that it didn’t hurt. It did.
There is a story about Frank Capra at the Academy Awards in 1934. He was nominated for Best Picture for Lady For a Day. Frank Lloyd was also nominated for Cavalcade. (Capra’s picture was better.) When Will Rogers opened the envelope, he said “Come up and get it, Frank!” Capra was halfway to the podium when he realized it was the other Frank. Now, that would have been worse than what happened to me. But this was bad enough. I was depressed for a few days, and then moved on.
It may have actually been a good thing, in a weird way. Harlan had always been friendly and supportive to me. After that, his generosity knew no bounds. He never asked me to keep the whole thing secret, and over the years I have told a few friends about it but asked them not to pass the story on. Other than that, I never mentioned it. I’m sure he could have survived the story getting out. He survived a lot worse than that. But he was grateful, there’s no question about that.
So now that he has moved out of Ellison Wonderland, his fabulous home in Sherman Oaks, and is typing stories on a heavenly Olivetti in the window of a celestial bookstore, I can say it.
Dad-gum-it, Harlan, I was pissed off! But I still love you, and I still forgive you. After all, we all fuck up.
* * *
1981 Best Novelette Hugo Ballot
Winner: Gordon R. Dickson, “The Cloak and the Staff” (Analog)
Barry Longyear, “Savage Planet” (Analog)
John Varley, “Beatnik Bayou” (New Voices #3)
Keith Roberts, “The Lordly Ones” (F&SF)
Michael Shea, “The Autopsy” (F&SF)
Howard Waldrop, “The Ugly Chickens” (Universe 10)
Denvention II, Denver Hilton Hotel, Denver, Colorado
Eight Worlds. I can’t remember the plot of this one. From the website: It is said that if you really want to learn something, you should teach it.
* * *
1982 Best Novella Hugo Ballot
Winner: Poul Anderson, “The Saturn Game” (Analog)
Phyllis Eisenstein, “In the Western Tradition” (F&SF)
John Varley, “Blue Champagne” (New Voices 4)
Kate Wilhelm, “With Thimbles, Forks and Hope” (Asimov’s)
Vernor Vinge, “True Names” (Binary Star 5)
David R. Palmer, “Emergence” (Analog)
Filmed a few years ago for the SCI-FI Channel. From the website: No matter the technological wonders that come to pass, it is still a story of human needs and desires that effervesce.
Chicon IV, Hyatt Regency Hotel, Chicago, Illinois
* * *
1982 Best Short Story Hugo Ballot
Winner: John Varley, “The Pusher” (F&SF)
Gene Wolfe, “The Woman the Unicorn Loved” (Asimov’s)
Somtow Sucharitkul, “Absent Thee From Felicity Awhile” (Analog)
George Guthridge, “The Quiet” (F&SF)
So for my penultimate Hugo nomination we come to the one and only time a Hugo was pressed directly into my hot little hands. The other two had to come from London and from Melbourne. Let me tell you, it’s a lot more fun that way.
For some reason my memories of Chicon IV are all a blur. It’s not that I drank myself into amnesia, though I did my share of drinking. I’m not sure what it is. I do recall the award ceremony, I remember walking up to the podium to accept the rocket ship, and I know I must have said something, but that is completely lost to me, too. I know there were parties, know that I crashed the Hugo Losers Party, and I have some idea of the other writers I interacted with that weekend. George R.R. Martin was there, at the time just another struggling writer trying to make ends meet (and not quite making it) by running chess tournaments, not the multi-millionaire he has become.
So how about the folks on the Hugo ballot? It was a short one that year. I don’t know George Guthridge. Wikipedia says he is an educator, and in addition to this Hugo nomination he was twice on the short list for the Nebula. He is the co-winner, with Janet Berliner, of the Bram Stoker Award for best horror novel, Children of the Dusk.
Gene Wolfe I knew from the Milford Writers Conference, a week-long workshop held, at that time, at the home of Damon Knight and Kate Wilhelm in Eugene, Oregon. I don’t know him well, and I wish I did, because I was quite impressed with his verbal story-telling skills. That is something I admire greatly, as I am a disaster at it. I stammer, I backtrack, I get my tongue tangled, and I am all too likely to blow the punchline. Not Gene. A great raconteur.
Then we come to Somtow Sucharitkul, a Thai-American who sometimes goes by S.P. Somtow, to avoid the difficult last name which few Westerners can pronounce on the first go-round. I met him some gathering in New York. He was this odd little Munchkin with a bemused smile. I liked him right off, but I have to admit I severely underestimated him. He gave off this vibe of not quite living on the same plane as the rest of us. I don’t want to say he was inscrutable … how about enigmatic? I couldn’t figure him out. I assumed he was a good writer, though I hadn’t read any of his stories, otherwise he wouldn’t be on the ballot. But just who the hell was he?
Later I learned he was related to the Thai royal family. He was born in Thailand but raised in England with English being his first language. He was educated at Eton (!) and Cambridge (!!!) He won the World Fantasy Award in 2002 for “The Bird Catcher.”
I remember he told me he writes music. Right. You meet a lot of music writers at science fiction conventions. Mostly they either flail away at electric guitars, frightening the horses, or drone some godawful ditty about Chewbacca and Captain Kirk in what fans call “filk singing.” But Somtow claimed to have written many marches, which piqued my interest since I’m a fellow march devotee. But I wondered if he was kidding me.
No, when Somtow said he wrote music, he was talking about symphonies, ballets, and operas. Well, I guess anyone can write operas, but Somtow’s stuff gets performed, and he’s written a lot. He has conducted Wagner, formed orchestras and progressive fusion ensembles.
He has written for animated TV shows, like Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers. He has dabbled in politics and even diplomacy, had his work censored by the military junta. Some of the things he has done are downright dangerous.
I could go on, but that’s enough. Somtow is someone who, when one regards his life story so far (he’s only 66), leaves one wondering “What the hell have I done with my life?” Multi-talented, polymath, Renaissance man … I soon run out of words to describe him.
Where was I? Oh, right, I was supposed to be writing an introduction to my Hugo-winning story, “The Pusher.” I’m proud of it. It is pure science fiction, and it has a twist ending, which is not something I’ve ever attempted before. Apparently it worked pretty well. It was on the Nebula ballot, too. It was a long ballot, eight stories, won by Lisa Tuttle, who refused it. She objected to campaigning by George Guthridge and Ed Ferman, who sent copies of his stories to SFWA members. It is the only time the award was refused. Also on the ballot was “Johnny Mnemonic,” by William Gibson, which is now regarded as one of those seminal stories that chart a path into new territory.
* * *
1985 Best Novella Hugo Ballot
Winner: John Varley, “Press Enter█” (Asimov’s)
David Brin, “Cyclops” (Asimov’s)
Joseph H. Delaney & Mark Stiegler, “Valentina” (Analog)
Charles L. Harness, “Summer Solstice” (Analog)
Geoffrey A. Landis, “Elemental” (Analog)
Aussiecon Two, Southern Cross, Victoria, and Sheraton Hotels, Melbourne, Australia
I tried to insist that the black square box be included every time the story was mentioned, but it was a losing battle. I suspect typesetters didn’t like the idea. It probably doesn’t matter much now, as it was meant to represent a computer cursor, the sort that used to flash at you all the time as a reminder that you weren’t getting enough work done. It’s dated.
The story itself was written on an IBM Correcting Selectric, the finest typewriter ever made. I still miss it sometimes, and have even toyed with the idea of getting another one and writing on that.
You think that’s crazy? Consider this: the home computer is the greatest time-waster ever invented. Sure, it’s handy as hell if you want to research something while you’re writing, but when you do that one hyperlink leads to another, and to another, and to another …
… and the next thing you know you look at the clock, bleary-eyed, and realize that it’s now two hours later and what started out as an enquiry about the moons of Saturn has somehow landed you at a site for Chevy El Camino enthusiasts by way of an outraged editorial concerning President Whiny Little Bitch’s latest assault against decency, via a YouTube video of people visiting the new land, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, at Disneyland, with a detour through a review of Captain Marvel.
Right after that the damn thing chimes and tells you one or more emails have arrived, and you have to read those, don’t you? And respond to some of them. Thank the Old Gods and the New, the Seven Gods, the Faceless God, and the Lord of Light I don’t participate in Facebook, or it would be even worse.
With a typewriter you roll a sheet of paper into the platen (look it up, young readers) … and you stare at it. No distractions. No Internet, no games, no “You’ve got mail!” No breakdowns! The sheet of paper never freezes, locking you out of what you were working on.
(Yes, from time to time my trusty IBM would malfunction. All machines do. In which case I called them up and Ellie, a guy in a business suit bearing a briefcase full of tiny screwdrivers would show up the next day—sometimes the same day—and have me back in business in a jiffy. For this I paid for a service contract at $80/year.)
My IBM never lost one character of type, much less a whole document. Can you say the same for your computer?
No, I’m not really going back, though oddly enough I just read an article (sent to me by Google News, when I should have been writing this!) that said typewriters are coming back into vogue on a small scale. There are a handful of writers who never gave them up, and even a few who have put their word processors away in favor of a Smith-Corona or an Underwood or a Remington. Or an IBM. They are also becoming quite collectible. Nobody makes them anymore except in India.
* * *
When I was compiling my previous collection, The John Varley Reader: Thirty Years of Science Fiction, I mentioned that that was probably as close as I’d ever come to writing an autobiography. The introductions told stories from my life in no particular order, with not even the slightest attempt at comprehensiveness. This book can be seen as Volume Two of this not-quite-an-autobiography. It has been my dream that you, my readers, might have some interest in what shaped the guy who wrote the stories that (I hope) have entertained you over the years.
It is now July, 2019, a date I never really expected to reach, and it occurs to me that my first published story, “Picnic on Nearside,” was in the August 1974 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the way magazine publishing works is that the August issue would have hit the stands in July of that year. Which means I have been a published author for precisely forty-five years. Some of you were not even alive in 1974, and many others were too young to remember much.
So, what has changed from 1974 to 2019? What happened that we expected to happen? What did we expect to happen that didn’t happen? And what did happen that we never expected in our wildest dreams?
Well, that’s far too broad a topic for me to cover. There have been huge scientific discoveries, many changes in the arts and fashions, new or vastly improved technologies from the integrated circuit to the self-driving car. But as an example, consider just one area of knowledge: the Solar System.
In 1974 Mariner 10 became the first probe to pass by Mercury. Starting in 2011 MESSINGER went into orbit and stayed there for 4,000 orbits.
In 1974 we were still one year away from Viking 2, the first successful lander on Mars. (A Soviet lander in 1971 died after 14.5 seconds.) It was the 8th successful mission to the red planet, out of 28 tries by the USA and the USSR. To date 59 fly-bys, orbiters, and landers have been attempted … and 20 of those failed. That’s a terrible percentage! Mars has been the hard-luck story of space exploration, the Jinx Planet. I’ve often wondered why. We lost one spacecraft, the Mars Climate Orbiter, because Lockheed-Martin was programming in the English system of measures, and NASA was using the metric system.
Now, doesn’t that smack of Martian agents hidden among us, sabotaging us any way they can? I mean, who could have been that stupid … We have explored maybe .0000001% of the Martian surface, and to a depth of a few inches into whatever might be underground. There is still plenty of room for intellects “vast and cool and unsympathetic” to be regarding us, waiting for the right moment.
Watch the skies, they’re coming!
We’ve visited asteroids and comets. We’ve studied Jupiter, which had 13 moons in 1974, and now has 79. We’ve got good pictures and data on the biggest ones. In 1974 Saturn had 9 moons. Today we know of 62. In 2005 the Huygens probe actually landed on Titan.
We have flown by Uranus and Neptune. New Horizons has flown by Pluto, which was a planet when the spacecraft was launched, and not a planet by the time it arrived. Pluto has 5 moons, all of them unknown to us in 1974.
New Horizons also passed by (486958) 2014 MU69, AKA Ultima Thule, a Cold Kuiper Belt Object shaped like a dirty snowman, and is now 43 AU (4 billion miles) from the Sun.
In 1974 we were still 3 years away from the launch of Voyager 1. In 2019 Voyager 1 is 146 AU (13.6 billion miles) from the Sun, and still talking to us. In 40,000 years it will pass real close (only 1.6 light-years away!) to Gliese 445. Unless, of course, it is picked up by a vast interstellar spaceship, as depicted in Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
In 1974 we knew of zero exoplanets. In 2012 we knew of one. Today we know of 4,096, and that number is expected to increase exponentially in just a few years as new telescopes get first light. Some of the ones we have found might harbor life as we know it.
So, without even getting into the things we have discovered beyond our near neighborhood, it is clear that I’m living in a vastly different universe than the one I knew when I first picked up a ballpoint and wrote “Picnic on Nearside.”
But while I always wanted to get the science right, my intent was never to write sheer “hard” science fiction. I wanted my stories to contain characters that you cared about at least as much as I did. And I was, and still am, much more interested in social change than the technological background scenery.
The most interesting thing about technological advance is how it affects human behavior. For instance, now everyone (except people like me, who just aren’t interested) has a high-definition color television-telephone-telegraph dingus in purse or pocket. How has this affected human behavior? Next time you’re in a restaurant, observe the people sitting and waiting to be seated. Many of them will be hunched over their cell phones, thumbs going like mad.
What are they doing? Texting? Playing Angry Birds? Watching Avengers: Endgame, or Stranger Things? Gambling in a Caribbean online casino? Writing bad Yelp reviews of the restaurant because they’re waiting? Paying bills, ordering things from Amazon? Reading all the Facebook news that Zuckerberg deems fit to post? Sending out Nigerian Prince emails to elderly chumps? Hacking into my bank account? Investing in Bitcoin? Tweeting or WhatsAppling or Tumblring, Instagrammatically? All of the above?
I have no idea, but I can tell you what they are not doing. They are not interacting with the people sitting next to them! This is a vast social change. Somehow, their Facebook or Twitter presence has become more important to these people than their actual physical location. In 1974 we still talked to each other.
Is this a good thing, or a bad thing?
You can find stories on the Black Mirror show that say it’s a terrible thing, as well as every other aspect of our cyber-society of 2019 or 2029, or 2059. There are studies that say we are less happy for every hour we are on our phones. Some say the new generation is in big, big trouble.
Well, the new generation has always been hurtling headlong toward disaster, hasn’t it? Not owning a phone, I am only an observer of all this, and as a member of an elder generation I am predisposed to be alarmed by it. But I suspect that it will turn out to be some good, and some bad, like most things.
* * *
The stories I am most known for take place in a future universe where changing one’s sex is normal. I was something of a pioneer writing about alternate sexuality in those early days, though far from the only one. Theodore Sturgeon, Cordwainer Smith, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Joanna Russ come to mind. These stories appealed to many people, but the ones I heard from most often were women. There was even a rumor floating around for a while that I was a woman, like James Tiptree, Jr., who was actually Alice Sheldon.
I have had occasion to poll people when I was giving speeches. If you could change sex, cheaply, painlessly, and totally, would you do it? Oh, and let me add … you could change right back the next day if you didn’t like it! You wouldn’t be committing to anything, you would be experimenting. Would you do it? The majority has always been strongly yes, I would try it.
So please indulge me, and come with me once more back to 1974, and let us look at some of the changes in the world of sex and gender, which in some ways far surpass any new technology.
For a start, those used to be the same thing. Not anymore. Now sex is defined by chromosomes, XX and XY, and gender is what a person believes him- or herself to be.
In 1974 there were four sexes. There were males, females, faggots, and dykes. I am being deliberately gross, because that’s the way it was. There were plenty of people (and there still are, unhappily) who would have said there were only two sexes: male and female. The rest were filthy degenerates, deviants, perverts, sodomites.
Now we all know there are four sexes, from the acronym LGBT. That is, lesbian, gay, bisex- … wait a minute. While I wasn’t looking that morphed into LGBTQ. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual (or should that be just trans?), and … queer? Questioning? As in, not quite sure of exactly what I am just yet. Okay, I can understand that.
But we are just getting started. The latest broadly accepted construction I am aware of (as of 7:54 PM, July 16, 2019, and by midnight it may well have changed) is LGBTQIA+. Seven sexes. Lesbian gay bisexual trans queer or questioning intersex asexual. Plus … which seems to be just in case we forgot about somebody. It seems hard to imagine that there could be anybody left out of that alphabet soup … but like I said, we’re just getting started.
(Actually there is one group left out, which is those people we used to call heterosexual, or “straight”: boys who like only girls and girls who like only boys. These days the preferred term is cisgender, or cissexual, or just cis.) (And yes, I do get it, the alphabet soup list is of people “marginalized”—another word unknown in 1974—by their sexuality or gender identity. The ones who used to be called degenerates.)
So seven doesn’t even begin to cover the varieties of sexuality that have been identified and named. Some of these orientations have multiple names, which spark vigorous arguments. These include:
U for Unsure. Same as Questioning? C for Curious. Like, exploring several possibilities? T or TS for Transvestite. (“Drag queens” are not always gay. They may just like to dress up.) P for polyamorous. TS or 2 for “two-spirit.” This is a term for Native American or First Nations people who reject the terms gay or lesbian. In the wonderful movie Little Big Man, the character of Little Horse was a heemaneh, a man taking a womanly role, well-respected in the Cheyenne tribe.
SA for straight allies. Some LGBTQ people reject the very idea that any straight people should be permitted a say in anything. H for HIV-affected. GQ for genderqueer. E for eunuch.
Let’s put a period on this. There are many more post-1974 terms, too many to list. But when the alphabet soup reached LGBTTQQIAAP (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, ally, pansexual, and I’m not making this up) I lost interest. Somebody give me a call if any of these terms or acronyms ever get set in stone so I’ll know what to say in any social situation.
What shouldn’t have surprised me, but did, is that there is great animosity among some of the non-cisgender people. Bisexuals, for instance. There are some gays and lesbians who say there ain’t no such creature. Then there’s intersex, people with ambiguous genitals. Some don’t want to include them under the rainbow umbrella. It strikes me as marginalization within marginalization.
I hope I haven’t given the impression that this is all silly. Some of it is, of course, but history and personal experience tell me that all revolutions are chaotic like this in the beginning. It will get sorted. I am 100% behind all the genders above. May you all live long and prosper.
* * *
Final, final, final, really final thoughts. Some of these “introductions” strayed far off any connection to the stories themselves. Some of them were maybe a bit long. I hope I didn’t bore you. The thing is, this will probably my last opportunity to sound off publicly about stuff, other than occasional rants on my website, www.varley.net.
These days I see little children, five years old, six, seven … and I think, these rugrats have a pretty fair chance (barring global catastrophe or the re-election of Donald Trump) of seeing the year 2101. The 22nd century!
Oh, the places you’ll go! The things you will see!
As a writer of science fiction I’m supposed to be able to extrapolate what the year 2101 will bring us, but you know what? I don’t have a clue. It is impossible to imagine, and anyone who tells you different is trying to sell you something.
With the passage of only another forty-five years, there are many of you reading this who will still be alive in the year 2064. I’m seventy-one, a few weeks away from seventy-two. I would be 117, so barring a true revolution in medical science, I won’t be there with you. Will the world be The Jetsons, or will it be The Post-Apocalypse Flintstones?
I’m optimistic. I think you youngsters will be living in the floating Skypad Apartments with your robot maid, Rosie. Your kids will be attending Orbit High School and you will be planning to blast the family spaceship to the asteroid belt for a vacation on low-gravity Ceres.
Have fun, drink a toast to me … and tell everyone to buy old John Varley books. His predictions for the future will be good for a laugh.
January 2, 2020