James Patrick Kelly
I should probably stop telling this story and with this iteration, maybe I will. It is a tale of victory snatched from the jaws of defeat. This occurred at one of the bigger cons, possibly a WorldCon but I can’t remember which. I was still a relative newbie, possibly just turned thirty, although I had published some and was starting to get on panels when I showed up at conventions. When I saw my schedule for this one I was at once horrified and elated to see that I would be on a panel with Robert Silverberg. This was the first time I would be meeting the great Silverberg, who had been one of my writer heroes from the moment I graduated from Tom Swift and Tom Corbett to real SF. Sure, I revered the big three — Heinlein and Clarke and Asimov — but as a young writer with a literary bent, it was Silverberg’s career I most aspired to emulate.
I have no memory of the panel’s topic, but I do remember arriving early and taking my place at the far end of the table, where I could hunker down and escape notice. Bob (did I just call him Bob? I still can’t believe this!) arrived shortly thereafter. He chose the place beside me. It was all I could do to keep from melting off the chair. But I gathered my courage and introduced myself and he did likewise, as if he needed to. Pause. Still five minutes to the start of the panel. Awkward silence. I decided let my inner fanboy loose. I leaned toward him and murmured something like: “I have to tell you that I’m a huge fan. You may not believe this, but your novel The Man in the Maze was the first sf book I bought with my own allowance.” Bob glanced at me and said with his characteristic sang froid, “Jim, I will thank you never to speak of this again.”
I was pretty sure he was speaking ironically. Or was he? Gulp.
Now as a writer who has now attained a certain age, I can appreciate where this remark came from. For example, I still get an odd twinge when my friend Matt Cheney, a man of mature years, tells the story of how we met when I visited his middle school when he was in seventh grade. Nevertheless, I was momentarily croggled. What if I had really given offense? But here is where my misspent college career as an English major paid off. I opined to Bob as how it seemed unlikely that most readers would get the fact that The Man in the Maze was a riff on the myth of Philoctetes, the archer who owned the bow of Heracles. Philoctetes was marooned by the Greeks on the island of Lemnos on the way to Troy because a wound on his foot was festering and gave off a terrible smell. For this he blamed Odysseus. Later it was prophesied that the Greeks would never conquer Troy without Heracles bow, and Odysseus was dispatched to convince Philoctetes to rejoin the countrymen who had betrayed him. Change the island of Lemnos to planet Lemnos and the foul smell to continuous and uncontrollable telepathic broadcast, add a huge helping of genius and you’ve got a wonderful sf novel (the original copy of which I still own). Now I have no idea why I knew the story of Philoctetes or when I had mapped it onto Bob’s novel, but suddenly this wasn’t mere fanboy gush, it was one writer noticing the intricacy of another’s work. I believe that my friendship with Bob Silverberg began with that awkward moment.
And I’m afraid I’ve dined off this anecdote (at conventions) many, many times before this. I’ve done so in the hope that Bob doesn’t really mind when I remind people what an influence he has been on this field — and on me.
OK I stand corrected, and apologize. My first post was a joke (though it was true: I was dazzled by such company) because I thought this topic would lead to a lot of dull grumbling. Not so. A lot of good stories instead. Mine differ only in the details. I didn’t set out to be a SF writer but discovered I was one; and discovered through the cons that I was part of a community of writers (something I had always wanted) with a consistent (somewhat) community of thoughtful readers. I had stumbled into the city I had always sought and been given a home. With all our grumbling I think we all realize what a rare privilege that is for writers in America. I like what Jim Kelly said. I won’t be running them down.
On Terry’s point, when my partner Cynthia was coming to join me at Readercon this year, she told a mutual friend, who is a fine writer and a teacher in an MFA program, where she was going–and he expressed commiseration, telling her how much he hated writer’s conferences–his experience being solely of the literary, academic sort. That did make me realize how different the SF con scene really is from any other writerly experience. Perhaps the romance cons are similar; I don’t have first-hand experience of them. But I tend to doubt it.
Rather than wait until I get home to give an actual respond, I’ll just say this: “Can’t answer. At a con.”*
*Or con equivalent.