1996 - A FANNISH YEAR
(or Flimsy Notes Towards a Trip Report)
by Perry Middlemiss
(First published in The Wollongong Pig-Breeders' Gazette 6, February 1997, edited by Perry Middlemis.)
I will have to put down 1996 as one of the most fannishly active years I can remember since Irwin Hirsh and I produced a monthly fanzine, by the name of Larrikin, back in 1987/88. The year started with me becoming actively involved with the Melbourne bid for the 1999 World Science Fiction Convention, continued through the middle of the year when I was voted the Down Under Fan Fund (DUFF) winner for the year and attended LACon III in Los Angeles in August, and finished with me as Chair of the organising committee for the 1999 Worldcon. It was an interesting time. A year that may set me up for a lot more work than I care to think about at the moment, but it was also a year that re-acquainted me with a lot of friends I hadn't seen in quite some time, and which introduced me to a lot of people whom I suspect will remain my friends for a long time to come.
I always have difficulty explaining my involvement with science fiction fandom to people who have little or no knowledge of it. The whole thing seems strange enough to me so I don't doubt others might find it almost incomprehensible. DUFF is definitely a case in point.
The aim of DUFF is to promote contact between fans in North America and fans in Australasia. Each year one fan is chosen by ballot from a field of nominated candidates to represent the fandom of their native area in the continent of the other. Only one candidate is sent each year and the direction of travel alternates between the countries. DUFF started back in 1972 and has been run every year since with the single exception of 1973. It is the second oldest such fan fund after TAFF, the Trans-Atlantic Fan Fund between North America and Europe. Both fan funds are financed by donations from various fans throughout the world who see value in the continued contacts. John Foyster, the Australian fan who initiated DUFF with Fred Patten and who won the first GUFF (Get-Up-and-over-Fan-Fund), believes that the fan funds are quite possibly the highest achievement of that strange beast known as fandom. In general, the fans who vote, who donate items for sale, who buy such items at auction, and who donate money in order for the fund to continue will receive little for their money other than the chance to meet someone from the other side of the world, and with only a faint chance of that. The fan funds have been referred to more than once in the past as a charity, which captures part of the spirit of the thing but not the total essence. When I came to describe the fan fund to various non-fans it always seemed to come across as me winning a free trip to the US, and then the next question implied that they wanted to know how they could win it as well. Just saying "err, no it doesn't quite work that way" never seemed to carry much weight.
Just deciding to stand as a candidate for the fan fund took a lot of thought. It would mean five to six weeks away from home and family, and while a lot of people might think that not such a bad thing to experience, it does leave you with feelings of guilt as you take off on holiday and leave the rest of the tribe back home stuck in the same old routine. It wasn't going to be possible to take Robyn and three-year-old Catherine around the US with me as one of the basic aims of any fan fund trip is to travel to various cities and to stay with fans in their homes, and to get out and meet as many fans as possible. Catherine would have made that practically impossible. So I was left with travelling on my own and suffering the guilt. But both Robyn and I were due a holiday as we hadn't taken anything longer than a week in over two years so we compromised by deciding that if I won, I was to take five weeks off on my own and then to meet up with Catherine, Robyn and her mother in California for another two weeks. The others would have three weeks off and I'd have a total of seven. At the time I thought I'd be able to fit it all in. But it didn't work out that way.
The first shock came when Alan Stewart (the previous winner and therefore current administrator) informed me that I had won with an absolute majority, of votes cast, from the other two candidates. Robyn had been very worried leading up the outcome of the count as she figured that Stephen Dedman would pick up all the votes from his home state of Western Australia which she understood to be a fair chunk of active Australian fandom, and that Danny Heap would pick up the bulk of the rest, especially covering the fans in Melbourne. I was reasonably confident without being arrogant about it. You never know with these things.
But I won and three months later was flying into the US for the first time. I'd timed my arrival to coincide with Toner a small fannish convention being held in Las Vegas a week before the main event of the worldcon in Los Angeles. This meant a bit of a layover in LA airport as I waited for the connection I needed to get me from California to Nevada. Needless to say I was accosted almost before I'd figured out where I was by a Hare Krishna who tried to sell me a book with a cover that looked like a disgustingly bad 1950s science fiction novel. I was almost tempted just to keep the incident running a little longer but refused when he attempted a very bad Australian accent as a form of familial greeting.
If LA airport was strange enough then the arrival in Las Vegas was something else again. It was hot, damn hot. And there were poker machines everywhere, including the area surrounding the baggage claim in the airport. I think I sat around for the bulk of the next few days totally dumbfounded by the surroundings, trying to get used to the constant clatter of machinery and coins, the weird effect of walking from a heavily air-conditioned hotel into the broiling sun, and then late at night to the huge crowds walking down the strip wandering in and out of the casinos. I feel quite safe in saying that there is no place on Earth quite like Las Vegas and, to be frank, I'm quite glad of it. The fans put on a wonderful little convention with little program and no pretensions. It worked a treat. The only problem being that the air-conditioning started to play havoc with my sinuses and the cold I thought I'd shaken off began to re-emerge. By the time I got back to Los Angeles my voice had started to pack up and I was feeling more than a little jaded.
LACon III was something of a blur. Late nights helping to run the Australia in '99 bidding parties, little sleep, not seeing as much of the con as I would have liked, but meeting heaps of new people in the parties and the fan lounge. If you handle it properly even a large convention of six thousand people can seem quite small so long as you stay in the corners, and don't try to do everything every day. My worst moment of the trip arrived on the Sunday night of the convention. The voting for the Site Selection for the 1999 Worldcon had ended and we were all hanging around waiting for the result and I had to present two fannish Hugo awards in front of three or four thousand people. It wouldn't have been so bad if it hadn't been so bloody hot and if it hadn't taken so bloody long between sitting down in the auditorium and making my way to the platform. I made it through without too many problems though Charlie Brown tried to look straight through me as I presented his Best Semi-Prozine Hugo to him after referring to his magazine as "Loc-us" - the crowd thought it amusing but he didn't.
We won the right to hold the 1999 Worldcon and everyone who came along afterwards gave us their condolences, and then complained about the membership rates - a theme echoed throughout the rest of my US trip. I got slightly drunk party-hopping with Spike Parsons and collapsed at about 3:00am, my earliest night of the convention. The next morning it was up early for a committee breakfast with Greg Benford (our Professional Guest-of-Honor) and his wife, and it was there that I started to feel a little under the weather. I put it down to a slight hangover and tried to ingest enough coffee, carbohydrates and orange juice to get me over it. It worked for a while but two days staying in San Francisco with Spike Parsons and Tom Becker along with Martin Tudor and his wife Helena knocked me completely rotten. I made it through to Seattle and John Berry's house and collapsed for a day in his spare room.
After that cities came and went in a blur as I climbed on and off planes for a total of 17 flights in the time I was away. I made it to Minneapolis and Joyce Scrivner's place with her psychotic black cat and to Pat and Roger Sims's house on what appeared to be the rural outskirts of Cincinnatti, to New York and my first rain of the trip as I stayed in Brooklyn with some non-fannish friends and got to stare into Norman Mailer's window, to Washington and Dick and Nicki Lynch's where Dick took me to meet Harry Warner Jr where I realised that is quite possible to be as nervous about appearing in front of one person as three thousand, and back to Los Angeles and Disneyland and my daughter's pure joy at being seduced by the power of the American entertainment industry.
It's a weird place America. And travelling through it meeting fans is a weird experience. I reckon I'll have to write about it someday. Otherwise I'll never believe I was actually there.