Agony Column Exclusive Commentary


Worldcon 3
Satday Night in the City of the Dead
The Agony Column for August 18, 2005
Commentary by Rick Kleffel
in which Rick hits his stride, apparently
Such was our trip that we had pretty much planned to blow off Saturday at the con to poke about Edinburgh. Of course, I had to put a bit of a monkey wrench in those plans by scheduling an interview with Jeff Ford just because, well, I could. I mean who could pass up a chance to talk to Ford? 'The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque' was one of my favorite books of the year it came out, and it was one of those books that for me seemed not only an outstanding bit of strangeness, but also a book that should have been a bestseller. So here was the plan: I would jet over to the SECC, record my interview and then pop back. We'd then head over to Edinburgh and some ancientness. It sounded good to me. They always do sound good, those plans, don’t they?

These started off quite well. At nine-something AM I found myself on the -- subway? -- tube? -- not sure what you’d call that thing we rode, now that I think of it. I was packed up and ready to go. I huffed and hustled my way from the train station at SECC to the hall itself, a not inconsiderable distance.

Now, on Friday night, Pan Macmillan and the ever-helpful Peter Lavery had promised quite a show during their "What's new from Pan Macmillan" panel, alas scheduled when I was interviewing Jeff Ford. But I did get there early enough to pop in beforehand and promise to visit after my interview. Then it was off to the press room!

The press people at the con were outstanding and outstandingly helpful. It was always a pleasure to go there and set up to work. Thankyouverymuch Laurie Mann was there to help ensure the door got opened, and it did. Jeff Ford hisownself showed up promptly and the interview began.

Jeff Ford, damn Jeff Ford. We SF types should be honored he hangs around with us, because the man is so talented and so interesting. It's really fun to do an interview when you're totally comfortable with the writer, know his work, and can just jabber, and we did that admirably. You'll hear all this in the fullness of time, trust me. Just a few details to sort out on this end!

Just know that Ford has a new novel coming out, and it has all the hallmarks of 'The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque'. It's a period mystery with lots of entertaining research -- but not so much as to overtake the ripping yarn that Ford is able to tell so well. It's got just enough weird in it to keep the hardcore must-have-some-weird-in-my-fiction readers glued to the pages but not so much as to frighten the horses, so to speak. The anticipation of great reading is so fine, is it not?

But I was a man on a mission and part of that mission was to take advantage of our location and do some actual vacationing with my lovely wife. In this case, that meant: trip to Edinburgh. SEE THE CASTLE was the immediate goal. Hmm. Plans, eh?

So when I reluctantly bid Mr. Ford adieu, I hustled to the train station, right? Well...uh.... I'd already missed part of the "What's new from Pan Macmillan" panel, but I did pop over and sneak in a bit, long enough to get a gander at what Lavery and Cecilia Dart-Thornton were so excited about. They had a lot of reason.

Now, I'm not sure if the younguns here will remember the halcyon days of yore when video games were rather newish, and the Mac was really lagging. Still is. But then the Mac world leapfrogged the PC world with Myst, a game that looked gorgeous and made many people's heads hurt, mine included. No matter what else you want to say about Myst, it's undeniably a gorgeous looking game, superbly art-directed and designed. So you can imagine how tickled Lavery and Dart-Thornton were to have folks involved with that game design, from what I could tell, a world based on Dart-Thornton's work. I got in long enough to see her driving viewers around a to-die-for realization of a fantasy landscape. It had the calm, pacific feel of Myst, but was based on actual fiction. Written-in-a-book fiction, not based-on-a-video game fiction.

I stayed for long enough to get the gist of things, then headed back to the hotel, and from there we went to Edinburgh.

We rode the train to Edinburgh; it's about an hour trip. This was really our first journey out into the British countryside landscape and it was gorgeous. I have to admit that in TYPICAL Californian fashion we thought, "Oh, it looks a lot like central California." And it did with two big exceptions. Lots of obviously ancient buildings dotted the countryside. And many of the buildings we saw were made entirely of bricks. It's really strange when you come from a brickless landscape such as ours to see all those houses just asking to fall down in the next quake. Guess they don’t make those in the UK, good thing too. Nobody here in California is particularly enamored of them.

After a relaxing ride, reading Neil Gaiman's 'Anansi Boys' (OUTSTANDING!) and staring at the landscape and just -- not running about from one place/person to the next, we arrived at Edinburgh. Anxious to get out there, we followed the WAY OUT signs.

The wrong WAY OUT signs as it were, and emerged into a rather bleak industrial-looking landscape with factories and skyscrapers sprouting from stone cobble lanes. Very eastern-bloc looking, back when there was an eastern-bloc. My infallible sense of direction pointed us in directly the opposite direction of everything we'd come to see and we huffed and puffed up hills and backtracked for about an hour, until we bought an entirely useless £4.50 map that included merchant instructions of "SELL TO STUPID TOURISTS".

Well, that was me, at least. Eventually we found our way back to the main drag and streets just packed with pre-Fringe festival tourists. And yes, now I see why Charlie Stross brought us The Festival in his novel 'Singularity Sky'. I was waiting for the other phone to fall. It probably did fall, only it bounced off a tourist head harder than mine own.

Pushing through the throngs, we managed to find the TOURIST INFORMATION CENTRE. Boy, what an accomplishment! And thus, we found ourselves walking up another fershlugginer hill, where we found more crowds...all waiting to get into the castle, the big tourist attraction here.

OK, cue the castle pix.

Castle with scaffolding. Scaffolding not quite so ancient. Note Blue sky.

But I have to say that California Damage preceded me. First off, we struggled through the crowds, which sort of counteract the whole "ancient air of mystery" thing. And here's the absolute nadir of my confession.

That authentically ancient castle looked kind of like...Disneyland. Yep, the sensibilities have been so frayed, so annihilated, that it was often hard to grab the feel away from theme park. Still, many of the parts did that. It was fun, essential, and we did get a killer view of the Firth of Forth, which I know mainly via an old song by Genesis. Really old, displaying my age, huh? Look it up folks.

The Disney Castle look.

But in our journey to the castle, we had passed the Scottish National Gallery, which was running a Gauguin exhibition. We spent the next two or three hours wandering through the many halls of the gallery, and it was pretty fantastic. It was also quite fortuitous in that it had started pouring rain while we were in the castle. So, duck out of the rain, into the galleries, enjoy art. Easy wonder, even for the uninitiated like me.

Lowering crowds. That guy was NO WAY FBI.

When we'd literally seen everything -- we had to go back to the first gallery we visited and see the French Impressionists upstairs -- it was back on the train and back to Glasgow, which seemed positively metropolitan by the time we arrived. We gave ourselves another break, but then went out for the more Worldcon experience.

The masquerade.


We'd missed this in Toronto, finding ourselves in the Hugos instead. So good call there! This time around, we wanted to see the masquerade, which both Claire and I had envision as a sort of dance you know, like that scene in the execrable monster movie that Shall Not Be Named. Like that. A big party, flat floor, everybody mixing about, maybe a stage with some biggish costumes.

A masquerade.

So we get to SECC and figure out the room, and it's in what they like to call The Armadillo. And when we slip into the room -- a bit late, alas -- it's not some big ol' flat hall with a stage.

It's a posh, dark theater, packed to the gills. So dark we can barely see our feet. But we can see the stage, where the costumes are being paraded for...

The masquerade.

Turned out it was run sort of like a fashion show, and wonderfully hosted, I might say. Each participant got a short bit of time on stage, and they paraded this costume and that, some cute, some great skit-costumes, some awesome, all visible with great video and two hosts who kept up a great rap.

And if it wasn't this big ol' dance that we imagined, it was a view into a segment of the con that eluded me -- with my literary inclinations -- before. So it was pretty nice to see. And for all the costumes and stuff, it seemed pretty pacey. Claire and I had not eaten, and it started pretty late so we were good for pacey. And they whipped through the costumes and finished it all up, and both of us were nodding, "Good, very good..."

Then the contest. Now, I'm entertained by contests as much as the next guy, but I have to admit when they said they were going to set up two teams to sew new costumes on stage for forty-five minutes...well, I recalled why I was on the literary track. Now I'm sure they had a great time, and if you were interested in seeing live sewing -- why there was not a better place in the universe to see it.

But I was glad that I was able to make a surreptitious exit. Yes, we were both impressed with the hosts, the presentation, the costumes, the inclusiveness of the whole deal. There are a lot of facets to a Worldcon. Some one might get, some one might love, some one might wonder about. But it's a big ol' tent, as they'd say in US parlor tricks. Come on down! The best and the brightest that the world has to offer. Come on down, come on down! We huffed in wonder, you know, about as much wonder as you can get at a con, really, out to the train/tube/subway and back to Glasgow proper, where we had Indian charcoal food that was quite outstanding in a little café. Good thing neither of us was quite aware of how far we'd traveled that day. I'd made two trips to the center, seen the castle and more art than I'd seen pretty much ever. A big day, considering it was just a blown-off sort of deal.