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How to Write SF

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THE SIGIL TRILOGY: The universe is dying from within... "Great stuff... Really enjoyed it." — SFWA Grandmaster Michael Moorcock

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From: Spider Robinson (spiderweb@shaw.ca)
Subject: Torcon 3 Toastmaster speech
Newsgroups: alt.callahans
Date: 2003-09-07 06:35:30 PST

Toastmaster Speech
Torcon 3
The 61st World Science Fiction Convention
by Spider Robinson
(c) 2003 by Spider Robinson; all rights reserved

(musical intro:)

(sung to the tune of Sir Paul McCartney's "Live and Let Die":)

When you were young
with your nose in an open book
you used to read Niven/Pournelle
(You know you did, you know you did, you know you did)
and in this ever-changing world
Pournelle and Niven
hope you fans will still buy--

(Spoken word:)

That's quite enough of that.  I just wanted to honor a few of my
heros--including Sir Paul McCartney, whose daughter Stella got married
this morning, near the Mull of Kintyre.  Congratulations, Stella.  Now
I'd like to mutilate a song by a different Paul altogether:

(Sung to the obvious Paul Simon tune)

The problem is right inside your work, she said to me
you're kind of a jerk, and you don't think too logically
I'd like to help you with your writing, but you see
there must be fifty ways to lose a Hugo

She said it's really not my business to critique
furthermore I've never won the artifact of which I speak
but I'll repeat myself, at the risk of being a geek:
there must be fifty ways to lose a Hugo
fifty ways to lose a Hugo

Leave holes in the plot, Scott
make your characters flat, Matt
get the science part wrong, Wong
or write Star Wars

You lack the right touch, Dutch
you know you never rewrite much
you better face facts, Max:
the rocket ain't yours.

She said it grieves me now to see you feeling rough
I wish there was some way I could help you....short of voting for your stuff
you know: she dissed me--and I realized what she'd just said was guff
there's just one single way to win a Hugo
just one way to win a Hugo:

Be the luckiest one, son
be the fortunate soul, Cole
Fate's favorite one of
the five nominees

Have incredible luck, Buck
it does help if you don't suck
but then it's random chance, Vance:
that's how it happened to me...
I guarantee
(times three)
Hee hee hee!

(Back to spoken word again:)  Thank you all for your sympathy.

My fellow Americans, welcome to Canada--please don't be alarmed, your
sidearms will be returned to you when you leave, that funny colored
paper is nearly as good as real money, and the people smiling at you on
the sidewalk are not mocking you.  I know it will seem odd to walk about
unarmed, but you see, once we established universal health care here in
Canada, and realized we'd all be paying for it in taxes all our lives,
we lost a lot of our enthusiasm for shooting each other up.  Robert
Heinlein once called this country ìa place where the natives were so
clever they paid not a cent to Washington!î  Nobody told him about
Ottawa--  Oh, and we really apologize for that 1812 thing.

My fellow Canadians, welcome to the Metro Toronto Convention
Center--please don't be alarmed: we invited all these Americans, and
they will be leaving as soon as the weapons of mass destruction are
located and Celine Dion has been apprehended and silenced forever.  They
had originally intended to enforce a single-party government pretending
to be a representative democracy throughout the land, but it's been
explained to them that we've already taken care of that ourselves.  So
have they, coincidentally.

My fellow humans from other countries, continents and corners of the
round earth, welcome to Canada.  Right now you can get some terrific
deals on beef dishes here...but I hope you brought plenty of mosquito
repellent because we haven't got any to spare. If you haven't, try to
get bitten by the East Nile variety.  Here in Canada we currently permit
gay people to marry, our courts recently struck down the laws against
possession of marijuana, British Columbia grows the finest pot on the
planet, handguns are a rarity, we average fewer murders per year than
the Texas justice system...and for some reason we find ourselves one of
the world's most popular tourist destinations.  We figure it's the maple
syrup.    If you should encounter large moody mammals with white fur, be
careful: those are our famous bi-polar bears.

All of you, welcome to the 61st World Science Fiction Convention, Torcon
3.  We'd like to thank Tom Doherty for the use of the name Tor, and
Condoleeza Rice for the use of the word ìcon.î  We certainly could not
have more prestigious Guests of Honor--beginning with our Ghost of
Honor, Robert Bloch, whose very name has come to stand for the inability
to write a goddam word....Frank Kelly, a painter so old he invented the
Freas, and made Alfred E. a New Man....a fan guest who's such a good
bullshit artist his very name is Mike Liar......and finally, of course,
the distinguished producer of nearly all the Beatles' albums, Sir George
R.R. Martin.

I was Toastmaster for the 50th ever Worldcon, and now I find food for
thought in the fact that this, the 61st World Science Fiction
Convention, will be the 50th time that Hugo Awards have been given out
for excellence in the field of sf.  For one thing, it says something
about our collective intelligence that it took fandom 11 years to think
of holding a popularity contest.

But if I may get semiserious for just a moment, I would like to note
something about that half-century mark.  My wife Jeanne's family is half
Portuguese.  Her grandfather Captain Frank Parsons (Francesco Paixao),
who recently died at age 100, was born in an era when men went over the
side in two-man dories and hauled up fish from the sea with the strength
of their arms; by the time he died he was a wealthy man who owned his
own wharf in New Bedford and a chain of fish markets.  He lived most of
his life in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where every summer, every boat
in town would put out to sea for a grand ceremony called The Blessing of
the Fleet, in which the Archbishop would call upon God to bless their
efforts in the coming season.

This tradition endured for exactly fifty years.  Last year, there was no
Blessing of the Fleet....because there is no longer a fleet.  There is
no longer a boat.  There was exactly one working fishing boat left in
P-Town for the Fiftieth Blessing: to hold the ceremony, they had to
bring in a couple of ringers from Gloucester.  A few months later, that
skipper joined all the rest: surrendered his license and became a
whale-watch captain, a tourist-milker.  There is nobody living in
Provincetown Massachusetts who earns his living by fishing--because
there ain't no cod or haddock left out there.  (This year's entire North
Atlantic salmon crop, by the way, seems also to have disappeared.)

I think we should stop and think for a moment about the fact that, as a
profession, science fiction writing seems to have outlasted pulling up
fish from the sea.

Yes, our genre is in one of its periodic stages of decline; sales are
down, magazines are languishing, and the few readers who haven't
defected to Tolkienesque fantasy sometimes seem determined to cling like
junkies to Star Trek, Star Wars, and other Hollywood Sci Fi franchises.
Some of our very best have had the bad taste to die on us recently, and
others have stopped working.

Nonetheless, here we still are, most of us, earning a living, some of
us, and still managing to see a desirable future in the near distance, a
few of us.  There are still a few readers out there who somehow managed
to get through the school system with an education, who find it
interesting to speculate about how the world might be different than it
is or ever was, and who are not terrified into weeping by the prospect
of setting their VCRs.  There are still some souls out there so
untouched by the cynicism of the day that they fail to fall down
laughing when told that technology might continue to make our lives
better, that science is not soulless, that to learn is not to destroy
mystery, that the stars are not irrelevant to us.

What bothers me is not so much that our industry's in decline but that
in part it failed, at least for our lifetimes.

Our central vision, lovingly polished and presented as entertainingly as
we knew how to make it, has been rejected by the world we meant to
save.  Because I was born in 1948, the phrase I will probably always
use, automatically, to indicate that something is futuristic is ìspace
age.î  There are doubtless grown adults in this room who were born after
the space age ended.  The very existence of the new Heinlein Award,
recognizing works that inspire manned exploration of space, means that a
need was perceived to foster such work.  About the only part of our
shared vision of the future that actually came to pass was the part
where America just naturally took over the world.  But while it's
prepared to police a planet, the new Terran Federation is so far not
interested enough to even glance at another one.

The day Apollo 11 landed, I knew men would walk on Mars in my lifetime.
I'm no longer nearly so sure.  The last budget put forward in Canada
contained not a penny for Mars.  (If you'd like to protest that, please
go to http://www.marssociety.org/content/marspetition.asp and sign the
petition.)  Michael Lennick was co-producer of a superb Canadian
documentary series about manned spaceflight, ìRocket Science,î still
being shown on some Discovery outlets.  His next project is an in-depth
examination of the growing phenomenon of people who refuse to believe we
ever landed on the Moon.  NOT because he sees them as amusing
cranks...but because they are becoming a sizable percentage of the
population.  And it's hard to argue with their logic: it beggars belief,
they say, that we could possibly have achieved moon flight....and then
given it up.

At least people still believe that men used to fish the Grand Banks,
once.  Some even dream of going back.

If our dreams are not to be lost, we must redouble our efforts to spread
the word.  I'm not knocking fantasy--the brand of sf I write is arguably
closer to fantasy than most--but if we offer readers nothing else, if we
only look backwards instead of forward too, one day we will find
ourselves surrounded by an electorate that has never willingly thought a
single thought their great grandparents would not have recognized--that
is living not even in the 20th century, but in the 19th.  That's not
acceptable.  I don't believe we're going to let that happen.  I think
we're just about to ignite a new renaissance in modern science fiction,
and that our next 50 years will make the first 50 look pale by

If that does happen, the people who will make it so are in this room,
now.  I salute you, and offer you the words of the late Shunryu Suzuki
Roshi, founder of the San Francisco Zen Center, who transplanted an
entire religion from one culture to a vastly different one back in the
early 60's: one of his favorite sayings was: ìDon't waste time.î

I'd like to tell you a story now because it's one of my favorite
stories, and because it happened only days after the last time I was a
Worldcon toastmaster...and because it may provide a hint as to just what
went wrong with the space program.

It was during the first Bush administration.  I'd had the great good
fortune to be given a VIP pass to attend a space shuttle launch.  When
the big day dawned, my friends and wife and I passed thousands of
stopped cars on the shoulder, cleared the checkpoint, drove over the
causeway and joined the elite line of perhaps a hundred cars full of
citizens privileged to watch the launch a mere mile or so away from the
pad.  We were somewhat dismayed when the line stopped altogether.  And
stayed stopped....

The sun beat down.  Air-conditioners overheated their engines.  People
stepped out into murderous heat to ask each other the obvious question,
to which no answer was forthcoming.  Fifteen minutes passed, very
slowly.  Up the road in the opposite direction came a motorcycle cop
with a bullhorn; he drove past us very slowly, ignoring all pleas and
gestures, braying, ìREMAIN IN YOUR VEHICLESî over and over.  Our
vehicles were by now solar ovens.  A million years went by...mosquitoes
gorged...sunblock ran down our necks...children cried...tempers began to
climb...the damn launch was only 15 min away, now--and suddenly, all
became clear.

Coming toward us on the opposite side of the road at twenty kilometers
an hour, shimmering in the heat, a vision: a flotilla of black stretch
limousines.  Surrounded by a phalanx of motorcycle cops.  Chase-cars
full of shooters in suits and black shades fore and aft.  The truth
began to dawn.  Sure enough, as the second limo came even with us, five
meters away, its tinted rear windows powered down, and there they were.
Identical robotic waves &ghastly smiles, like terrible twin parodies of
the Queen. Dan and Marilyn Quayle.

Mr. Quayle's duties as Vice President had included direct responsibility
for America's space program.  Three months away from leaving office,
now, he had decided to pay his first visit ever to NASA turf, while they
still had to let him in.  We all realized we'd been kept broiling in the
sun so the Secret Service could make absolutely sure there wasn't an
alligator with an Uzi in one of the drainage ditches beside the road.

And as the motorcade crawled past, and Mr. Quayle waved and smiled--I
swear to you--all of us gave him a gesture which here in Canada is
called the Trudeau Salute.  [flips bird]

The motorcade passed, traffic started up, and we were in time to see the
Endeavour lift, the 50th shuttle launch ever--there's that magic number
fifty again.  If anyone had told me, back in the 1950s when I started
reading science fiction, that one day I would see a spaceship take off
with my own eyes...well, I'd have found it hard to imagine.  But if
they'd told me that on the same day I would see hundreds of Americans
loyal enough to have VIP access to government property all publicly give
the Vice President of the United States the finger, I'd have flatly
refused to believe it.

I like to think we've all come a long way.

I will close, shamelessly, by quoting myself: with an excerpt from a
book I published a few years ago called CALLAHAN'S KEY, because it
describes what I saw after Dan Quayle drove away:

At first the world is nothing but horizon, endless ocean and sky, all of
it still, serene.  Three hundred and sixty degree Spielberg.  The
stillness is not perfectóthere is the countdown bellowing out of those
superb speaker horns, and there is the internal thunder of elevated
pulseóbut basically the world is as it has always been: at rest,
indifferent to anything any of the scurrying ants on its surface might
come up with.

Then Hell breaks loose.

A dirty white explosion spreads in all directions.  At its center,
beneath the stacked array, a Beast is born.  It is mighty.  And angry.
Its roar shatters the world, splits the sky, echoes up and down the
Florida coast and miles out to sea.  You thought you knew what to
expect, but this is louder.  The sound is tangible, hits you with
physical force, vibrates up your legs from the ground beneath your feet,
scares the living shit out of you.  Your first thought is that you are
witnessing a disaster even more awful than Challenger: an on-the-pad

Then the Beast's two big brothers wake upóthe giant solid rocket
boostersóand Heaven, Hell, Purgatory and Limbo all break loose together
and start to argue.  The sound is indescribable, just short of
unbearable.  So insensate is the rage of this new Beast that the world
itself will not have it.  No matter that something the size and weight
of an apartment building is sitting on its back: it lifts from the
ground on a raving column of its own fury and rises impossibly into the
air, becomes a thick growing tower of white smoke, the 128-ton Shuttle
stack balanced on top like a pingpong ball on the stream from a
firehose.  The bonds of Earth can be as surly as they like: the Beast is
surlier, shrugs its terrible shoulders and slips them clean.

You realize that you are pounding your hands together and screaming ìGo,
baby, go!î like an idiot at the top of your lungs, and you gather that
everyone around you is doing the same, but you can't hear any of it.
Part of you wishes you had control of your hands so that you could take
photos like you planned to, and another part is amused at the audacity
of the notion that this event could possibly be squeezed through a
pinhole and captured on a piece of celluloid smaller than a matchbook.
Instead you watch in reverent terror as a utensil built by bald apes
flings 97 tons of metal and plastic 2 million mi.  With 5 live people

For two million years it had been only a fantasy, a monkey dream.  For
the first fifteen years of my own life it had still been only a fantasy,
something a teacher or a scientist might laugh at you for believing in.
For the next quarter-century it had been a news storyóone that seemed to
bore most of my fellow citizens silly.  But now it was realityóreal
reality; that is, the part experienced by meóand the
two-million-year-old dream had really come true:

The species I belonged to had figured out how to climb the biggest tree
there is.  We were already becoming familiar with its lowest branches.

In that moment, I knew, as fact, with utter certainty, that one day we
were going to climb all the way to the top.  Nothing was going to
prevent us.  Not presidents, proxmires, press, public opinion, economic
forces, or nuclear winter.

No, it could be delayed, but it could not be stopped. This was evolution
in action, before my eyes.  As surely as we had come down out of the
trees, as surely as we had crawled up out of the tidal pools in the
first place, we were going to do this thing.

To put it in Canadian: Let's do it, eh?

Thank you for your patience.  We will now begin the presentation of the
Hugo Awards.....


These are the lyrics of "Niven/Pournelle" that I decided not to sing,
but rather to hold in reserve in case I needed to cover some hideous
emergency:  (I happen to have some reason to know such things can happen
at a Hugo Awards ceremony.)  Fortunately the necessity did not arise
this time.

We hope that it matters to you
that writers have a job to do
we try to do it well
It's just the publishers are cheap as Hell....

When you were young,
and your mind was an open sewer
you used to read Philip José
(You know you did, you dirty kid,admit you did)
and in this rude and prudish world
Phil José Farmer
hopes new fans will still try....

-- "Shared pain is lessened;
 shared joy is increased;
 thus do we refute entropy."
                óJacob Stonebender

"Librarians are the secret masters of the world.
 They control information.
 Don't ever piss one off."
               --Spider Robinson

Visit http://www.spiderrobinson