Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

We boarded United Flight 830, non-stop from Portland to Denver, and took our seats in the first class section. Leg room! Elbow room! I leaned back and refreshed myself with the steaming hot towel brought by the flight attendant and watched the proletariat in their threadbare clothes stumbling by on their way to steerage, their ragged children staring longingly at my Diet Coke. On their way to start new lives in Denver with questionable Internet start-up ventures, no doubt. Most of them probably didn’t even speak Coloradan English yet. Ah, the life of luxury. I tried not to sneer at the peasants. One has to uphold standards of noblesse oblige, after all.

I will admit that it had been quite some time since I flew first class. In my screenwriting days it was part of the WGA contract: First class travel when going somewhere to work on a movie. But those days were behind me now. In fact, we had barely flown at all since 9/11. But now I leaned back in my deeply padded chair and let my mind fly back to the day the good people running MileHiCon 48 contacted me regarding a possible weekend as their Guest of Honor …

* * *

I hadn’t been angling for a first class ticket, honestly. I merely replied that at my advanced age, and even though I now had two bionic knees that didn’t cause me nearly as much pain as the old ones had done, the prospect of getting on an airplane and squeezing my 6’5” frame into a tourist-class seat filled me with dread. (And I was right. A few months ago we flew to Baltimore on Southwest Airlines for a convention. The chief difference between one-class Southwest and a cattle car is that there is no actual cow shit on the floor. Lunch is a packet of about a dozen peanuts.) I was figuring my decision to tell the con people that I no longer wanted to fly was a deal breaker, frankly. I mean, I would have loved to go to Denver, but could not take the time to drive there or go on the train, like a civilized person. So imagine my surprise when they came back with the offer to seat us at the front of the plane, in seats designed for human butts! I said yes!

* * *

Far be it from me to complain, but I must point out that first class airline travel, like so many other things, is not quite what it used to be. The physical comfort is just as good as it always was, and the food is decent and served on real crockery. But as I looked at my lunch and thought back, I realized that on my very first airline flight, back in 1966, the food I was served in tourist class was very much like this. And everybody got it. It was part of the ticket, and everyone expected it. But what we used to think of as standards of air travel, like free checked baggage, have been gradually whittled away over the years, just as inches were whittled off airline seats, becoming classified as perks, until we are now left with … well, with Southwest Airlines. Flying used to be a nice experience. Just check out these pictures of how food used to be served on airplanes, and notice that some of these pictures were taken in tourist class.

They did everything but bring a pig to your seat, slaughter and butcher it, and barbecue your pork chops right there in the aisle!

* * *

I know this is supposed to be a report on MileHiCon 48, but I felt I first just had to mention the travel, since it is such a big part of the convention experience. And the con people really came through, just as they did in every other aspect of the tough job of putting on an SF convention.

We were picked up by Patrick Hester at the gigantic Denver airport. There was a minor kerfluffle concerning a fascist security man ordering us around so that we almost lost our ride (not Patrick’s fault at all), and soon we were heading down the freeway toward the hotel …

… which was not in downtown Denver. This is the only (fairly minor) complaint I had about the whole weekend. The Hyatt Regency was in a place called Tech Center, about ten miles from downtown. There was a train that went there, but since I seldom had more than two hours between obligations there wasn’t much point in getting on it. I missed that, walking around seeing the sights—I’m a downtown sort of guy—and so we never got to go to the museum that I remember from 19 … my lord, 1961!, when I was fourteen years old with my new Texas driver’s license in my pocket! My family was on the way to Oregon for a vacation. We convinced Dad to stop there for a few hours. There were dinosaur skeletons in that museum, the first I had ever seen.

Tech Center is not a walking-around kind of place. The buildings are new and sterile, and the sidewalks were deserted at night except for a solitary dog walker. She directed us to the only restaurant in sight, a McCormick and Schmick’s seafood place. That was the only meal we ate outside of the hotel. It turns out there were others a few long blocks away, but we never got there.

The upside was that the food was good at the Hyatt, if a little spendy for our budget. There was a great breakfast buffet at $19 a head. The con gave us an envelope containing some “walking around money,” which helped considerably. By the time we left we were on first-name terms with several of the servers: Max, Traci, Mary, and Layla who said: “Layla came out in 1973 and I came out in 1974.”

* * *

We were soon unpacking in our spacious corner room. We had a view out over the parking lot where dozens of dealers were unloading their vans and trucks. I’ve always been glad there are dealers at conventions, and even more glad that I’m not one, having to tote all the stuff in, set it up, sit there for the whole convention and miss most of the interesting stuff, then schlep all the stuff that didn’t sell back into the vehicles. While looking out the window I noticed that it didn’t open, as in so many buildings these days. Personally, I like to get some fresh air, and opening a window also helps to blow away the smell of … oh, hell, I might as well say it: pot. It’s legal in Washington State and in Colorado, and in a few days may be legal in five more states. I don’t use it, but Lee has been known to.

So the next day we started meeting people. The con people we knew best were Rose Beetem, the Director of Programming, Linda Nelson, the Chairperson, and of course there was Patrick, Guest Services Director. If we needed anything, they were always there to help.

Then there were the other guests. The writer co-guest was Kelley Armstrong, a prolific author of quite a few novels across several genres, including something called urban fantasy. I’ll confess that I know nothing about that, but we have several of her books now and will try them. See, the thing is, I have not read much science fiction or fantasy for many years now. The reasons for that are complex and don’t really make a lot of sense, but it has left me unprepared to talk intelligently about writers who have come to prominence in the last, oh, let’s say twenty-five years or so. She knew a lot more than I do about the panels we were on, which enabled me to look over in her direction and nod thoughtfully, just as if I knew what we were discussing. So though I don’t know her work, one thing I can say about Kelley is that Lee and I both thought she was just a terrific person.

I can say the same about Julie Dillon, the artist GoH. She did the terrific cover for the program book. You can see more of her stuff here.

I immediately wondered if she might be the daughter of Leo and Diane Dillon, legendary illustrators of children’s and science fiction books, winners of the Caldecott Medal in 1976 and ’77 … but no. Anyway, Google the Dillons and feast your eyes on some of the best that art you’ll ever see.

And ditto Chaz Kemp, a Colorado artist who functioned as the Toastmaster, a big man and a swell guy who had the chore of introducing us all.

I’m sorry to say I wasn’t able to spend any time with L. Neil Smith, the Special Guest. He is a libertarian who founded the Prometheus Award (which I won in 1999 for my novel The Golden Globe.) He was there to receive the Special Prometheus Award for Lifetime Achievement. Neil was doing poorly, sitting in a wheelchair. And on second thought, maybe it’s a good thing that I didn’t talk to him much. He is pretty extremely right wing, and I am not. In today’s climate, it can be hard to discuss politics. And best to avoid it when you can.

I was on a half dozen panels and had a one-on-one interview and a presentation before the showing of the movie I wrote, Millennium. I had brought a huge map I had drawn way back in 1976, showing the interior of Gaea from my trilogy. It is about fifteen feet long, and I brought it to Philadelphia for my first SF con appearance. The con people had brought Isaac Asimov down on the train (Dr. A., the famous creator of the Galactic Empire, was terrified of flying!) … to introduce me! To say I was flabbergasted is a huge understatement. And he had read my stories! He helped hold up the giant map as I pointed out various things. One of the features of MileHiCon was an auction for a literacy project, so I donated the 40-year-old map to them. It brought $210, the highest price of any item!

I digressed. All the interviewers and moderators that I was involved with were very prepared, and asked intelligent questions. Some of them were so intelligent that I couldn’t answer them.

Colorado seems to be teeming with writers. There were something like seventy of them for the mass autographing sessions. Most of them were self-published, but that doesn’t mean what it used to mean, which is that you aren’t good enough to sell your stuff and so you hire a “vanity press” to print up a few hundred of them. These days, with many small presses and, of course, online publishing, it seems to me that the route to getting your work out there is a lot easier. Of course, making a living as a writer is still as hard as it ever was. Maybe harder. The public spaces of the hotel were chock-a-block with tables filled with the books of people who had gone the small press route, with the authors sitting there and selling them. We met several of them, and bought a few books.

The only person at the con that I knew from before was Ed Bryant, and we had a pleasant time walking down memory lane and discussing past glories. He has been a good friend of Harlan Ellison since the ‘70s, and I forgot to ask Ed how Harlan is doing. (The Young Turk of the ‘60s, the man who famously punched out Frank Sinatra, is now 82.) Some other day I must tell the story of how Ed introduced Harlan at Westercon 37 in Portland in 1984. It was hands down the best and funniest speech I’ve ever heard at a convention.

One thing I kept noticing over and over is how much conventions have changed since my first one in 1976 in Philadelphia. The last con Lee and I had attended before this year was a Westercon in Pasadena, and we were severely disappointed. There were almost no book sellers in the dealers room. The whole thing was 95% concerned with media: movies, TV, and Internet stuff. There were not a lot of book dealers here in Denver, either. I guess that’s the way it’s going to be from now on. Sigh. I have nothing against movies and TV (which is better now than it has ever been) but I sometimes wonder if anyone will still be reading books in another thirty or forty years.

Also, back in the day, I was a pretty enthusiastic partier, swilling down the free beer with the best of them, and still able to get up in the morning even with a pounding hangover, and make it to my panels. I don’t drink anymore, and I don’t party, and it’s just as well, because the partying ain’t what it used to be. Hotels used to be a lot more forgiving concerning parties. Bathtubs were filled with ice and beer and soft drinks, and the parties spilled out into the halls. In fact, sitting in hallways with friends was one of my favorite things to do at a con. I could hear better, and the bathtub was still just a few steps away. No more. The halls at the Hyatt were quiet as a church full of Mexicans listening to a Donald Trump speech.

Have to mention—without condemning the new rules in any way—that when I started going to cons, you could smoke anywhere. (I was a smoker until about a year ago, and still crave one about a dozen times a day. Make that two dozen.) Then some parties began setting aside non-smoking rooms. Then the parties became non-smoking, with rooms set aside for smokers. Then the parties, and most of the hotel rooms, became totally non-smoking. Like I said, I don’t object, but it’s a big difference from 1976.

Let me add that the staff of the Hyatt was very friendly and accommodating to all us weirdoes. They even dressed up in funny hats, though I think some of that was for Halloween.

We did spend a little time in the bar, but it was mostly to watch Games Three, Four, and Five of the World Series. It was looking very bad for the Cubbies there for a while, but as you might have heard, they came roaring back and made me and Lee very happy. I don’t even really like the city of Chicago, but I have to love the Cubs and their wonderful old-fashioned ballpark with the hand-turned scoreboard, just like the one at the Little League field in my hometown.

Lastly … the program book had a full four pages of rules and regulations. They were mostly common sense stuff, like don’t get in someone’s face, don’t touch somebody without permission, don’t swing a sword. I thought the admonition not to take someone’s picture without asking first was a little overboard. I mean, everybody has a camera these days. And if you’re camera shy I’d suggest that you don’t dress up as a Wookie or a half-naked Amazon queen and wander the halls.

Back in the day … well, I think all those rules could have been summed up in a few words: Don’t be an asshole. And if you behave like an asshole, we will kick your sorry ass to the curb. End of story. But I do understand that in this litigious age it’s better to write it all down.

And that’s it. We really had a lot of fun, met a lot of nice people, and were treated very well. I’m still not decided if we will be attending more conventions in the immediate future, but check this site for news, and if you’re not already on the mailing list, sign up and we will notify you!

Vancouver, WA
November 9, 2016