Last real day of vacation, tomorrow will be mostly on a plane and be three hours shorter than normal. I left the room at 9:30 this morning and grabbed another fruit frappacino and muffin at Starbucks on my way to the convention center, not something you’d want to make a habit of. I think I liked the tangerine better than the pomegranate. Just a few panels to see today, the first was two guys who call themselves the X Hunters, they go into the deserts around the air force bases of the southwest looking for debris from test planes that have crashed over the years. The air force has typically recovered the main fuselage years ago, but there is still plenty of stuff to be found, and they give it all back to the air force for its museum and for research. They went through a huge slideshow that covered every possible experimental plane, many of which crashed at least once, it was very interesting to see all of them and their various designs and purposes.
The next panel featured several members of the Cassini probe team, primarily I guess from JPL nearby. They had a short slide show and then went down the table variously describing their favorite moment, most anxious and most embarrassing moments on the project. You got the sense that they had been able to really bond as a team from all the time they’d spent together over the last several years, and since Cassini has been successful by and large there was a sense of accomplishment, with enough telemetry collected to keep them busy for quite some time.
The last panel featured an extemporaneous talk by Ray Bradbury, whom I’d only seen once before, at this very convention 10 years ago. He’s confined to a wheelchair now and doesn’t look or sound so good, going on 85 or 86 I think. He arrived 20 minutes late but got right up on the stage and talked for 40 minutes or so about his early days and how he got into sf and what it was like back then to be a science fiction writer. He said that as a boy in Waukegan Illinois he visited a carnival where he met a performer name Mr. Electrico who zapped him with an electric prod that made his hair stand on end and proclaimed “you will live forever”. He also spoke about taking the bus to New York from L.A. to meet a publisher who gave him the idea to assemble several of his Mars stories into a book, and while he was there they also came up with the idea of a fixup centered around the Illustrated Man, and he went home to his pregnant wife with $1500 as an advance, enough so that he could take the train instead of the bus. There was another huge line waiting on him for autographs afterwards, this is probably the last time I’ll ever see him, so it was kind of sad, but it was worth hanging around for.
In general, this convention was really good, very well put together, obviously the committee knew what they were doing, and the mix of programming was so vast and diverse that it seemed like you could only sample from some of the many tracks that looked intriguing in one form or another. It was good to see Ellison and Bradbury again, maybe for the last time, and McCaffrey for the first and probably last time. I didn’t see Fred Pohl, but he was supposedly there, and Ackerman, all the remaining members of the old guard (except Jack Williamson, whom I don’t believe I’ve ever seen and who may very well live forever), which is rapidly dwindling. You notice a significant difference in these people from 10 years ago when I first encountered them, and it will definitely be the end of an era when they’re all gone. The nature of sf back then allowed fandom to come into being, when the field was much smaller, there was much less distinction between writers and readers, and most people could keep up with all the significant work being published. Now the SF field is much more diverse and diffuse, spread out all over the country and indeed the world, and with the passing of the old guard, the multiplicity of writers coming into the field, all competing for a potentially dwindling readership, yet producing more books than anyone can possibly read, even in a subgenre of sf, plus the ability to keep connected through the internet, one wonders what the future of SF holds and whether a Worldcon in even 15 or 20 years will look remotely like what it does now. You definitely don’t see a lot of young people in the crowd, the vast majority are my age or older. A lot of newer writers come to conventions, but once established they seem to drift out of the picture and even out of sf, focusing on more lucrative pursuits or making the transition to mainstream fiction. A lot of other popular writers don’t interact with fandom at all. The generation behind the “old guard”, Martin, Resnick, Robinson, Willis, etc., still have plenty to say and are all friends as well, so that generation at least should keep things going as they are for a while yet, but what comes up behind them I have no idea. By all indications, Bob Silverberg will still be around, maybe he’ll take care of it.