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By Rodger Nichols
For The Sentinel 

Walking in other worlds


August 22, 2018

The Sentinel contributor and Gorge Country Media news director recounts his adventures at a world-renowned sci-fi convention.

Aliens and robots and vampires stalked the halls at the 76th World Science Fiction Convention last weekend in San José. The event, known as Worldcon to the fans, drew nearly 5,000 people who enjoy fantasy and science fiction. For five days each August the tribe gathers somewhere in the world (last year’s was in Helsinki, Finland) for days of fan fellowship, presentations, panel discussions, competitive costuming, exotic items on the many dealer’s tables, author readings and autograph sessions, among other delights.

I have been a fan for more than 60 years and have been going to Oregon and regional science fiction conventions off and on for a couple of decades, but my first opportunity to attend a Worldcon was in 2015 when it landed in Spokane. Though I have interviewed more than 600 authors in the past eight years at Haystack Broadcasting and Gorge Country Media, only a handful of them have been face-to-face. The opportunity to meet and actually interview people whose work I have enjoyed for decades was an incredible draw. My wife Julie came along and surprised herself by enjoying it immensely, primarily for the presentations on such things as getting the science right when designing planets.

Though circumstances and cost kept us away from subsequent Worldcons in Kansas City and Helsinki, this year’s San Jose was comfortably within reach, a short 90-minute plane ride from Portland. Though we booked months in advance, all the hotels closest to the McEnery Convention Center were full, and ours was an exceedingly long four blocks from the cavernous facility at which as many as 14 different events were taking place simultaneously in the various rooms. There were program tracks on science, fandom, culture, art, costuming, literature, business, publishing, gaming, singing parody songs, and dancing. As you might expect, the dancing was not about the fox trot or the twist; instead sessions included a swing dance workshop, historical dances originally designed for trios, regency dancing and one lovingly titled “Waltzing to Weird Music.”

Some of the most interesting sessions were those for writers and aspiring writers, because, though there were a number of professional writers there, the percentage of attendees who would love to be writers approaches 100 percent. Titles like “How to pitch a story” and “Mistakes to avoid on book contracts” drew packed-room audiences.

Panel discussions on such topics as “alternate histories,” featuring authors who have written novels about such things as the U.S. losing World War II, as in the Netflix series “The Man in The High Castle,” had audiences enthralled.

In other rooms, animation and movie festivals played, and in the thousands of square feet devoted to dealers, people could buy everything from vintage science fiction, to steampunk garb to ceremonial swords and (non-functional) light sabers.

One of the compelling factors that influenced my decision to attend was the guest of honor, one of the biggest names in the field, Spider Robinson. He’s won just about every award in the field, including the Hugo (awarded by vote of the fans who attend the Worldcon), the Nebula (awarded by fellow writers), the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer back in 1974 and several lifetime achievement awards.

But the awards don’t begin to tell the tale of the man whose philosophy is “Shared pain is lessened; shared joy, increased — thus do we refute entropy.” He broke into the field in the early 1970s with a series of tall tales about a place called Callahan’s Bar. It’s set in an obscure location on Long Island with the comfortable feel of a British neighborhood pub. But the regulars there have learned that they can expect anything from an alien invader to a talking dog to a telepath on any given night. They are also given to pun and tall tale contests, in which the winners have their bar tab comped for the night. The short stories, which originally appeared in magazines, were collected in a number of books.

Novels followed, including Stardance, co-written with his late wife, Jeanne Robinson, a world class dancer. It won both the Hugo and the Nebula and featured the first dancer to perform in zero gravity. That scant description is like saying the ocean is somewhat wet. The book, which grew into a trilogy, features memorable human characters and is infused with hope. Scoring a one-on-one interview with the author Sunday was a long-held dream realized.

And it was a chance to do something nice for him as well. Back in 1981, he wrote a Callahan’s story that contained a new kind of riddle in which short clues are given for people to guess the identity of a celebrity. Several of them were solved by the bar patrons, including “coffin; baby boy” which translates to “pall; new man” which is Paul Newman. Several of them, though, were left untranslated, and Robinson said he would mail a chit good for a free drink at Callahan’s to anyone who could get all of them right. I was one of the people who did so and kept the letter for the past 37 years. I presented it to him, and he was delighted to see it because he no longer had the original, following several moves, and hadn’t seen it for decades. It was a pleasure to give something to the writer who had given so much to me and many others over the years.

I came home with some wonderful memories, a great interview with one of my heroes, and a ribbon that is now one of my prize possessions: it announces that in the tall tales contest held at the version of Callahan’s Bar at the convention, I was the third-place winner.

I’d tell you more, but my glass happens to be empty at the moment...


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