Agony Column Exclusive Commentary


UK Trip Blog 2005
The Agony Column for 2005
Commentary by Rick Kleffel
08-06-05: Well.

I've got about what -- an hour to pound out a bit about what I've been up to here in Glasgow before I get on the next merry-go-round, so here goes....

Let's see, when last we spoke -- ah. First day of the convention, not covered well. Second day of the convention, not covered at all. So, take a deep breath. Starting on Thursday morning. Yes.

"The Portrayal of Science and Scientists on SF TV" featured Andrew Adams, a computer scientist, Genevieve Dazzo (biologist) and eventually Therese Littleton (also biologist? -- brain shrinking rapidly). A very entertaining panel on the reality versus the stereotypes of scientists as seen on SF TV shows, and yes they did talk quite a bit about the runway models you see five nights a week on the various CSI derivatives. Adams in particular distinguished himself, and it came as no surprise when he later showed up the BBC report about Worldcon.

We then wandered about for an hour and picked up a bit to eat. Now con food is or should be notoriously bad, but I've got to admit the little booths about the SECC were actually rather decent. I wouldnt want to eat that food and that food alone for thirty days, but they do offer cups of coffee with shots of espresso and sandwiches that aren't archaeological relics.

Wiede concourses made the SECC a nice place for a convention.
In general, the concourses were pleasantly but not excessively crowded. I know it goes to my growing agoraphobia to suggest this, but some of the crowds at Torcon were pretty difficult to navigate. Here the hall seemed a bit bigger -- and the con correspondingly smaller, so that it was in general easier to get about, though when you got into the various suites and rooms things could get pretty packed.

Next up, at 2 PM, was a reading with Alastair Reynolds from his new novel, a lovely little bit of action from 'Pushing Ice'. It provided me with the ultimate author-reading satisfaction; I got to see the monster! Just a bit, just a corner of a corner of a tentacle, enough to entice and tantalize, not enough to spoil. Al is a great reader of his own work, though my lovely wife did poke me when I closed my eyes. I do this to drown out the visual world when I listen to readings, to let the movie play more effectively in my mind. Really! It's one of the pleasures of going to a reading.

We chatted with Al and his wife for a bit and then wandered off to the dealer room, where I took some rolling shelves piccies. That was a just a blip of time before the opening ceremonies. Since I was doing a radio piece about Worldcon, I first headed to the pressroom where I had the exciting experience of getting my press pass. Woo, fun! There I met up with Laurie Mann, one of the great fan organizers and a name I know I recognize from Usenet days of yore, I believe, as far back as the 1980's. She was very nice and very helpful, got me all set up and signed up to cover the Opening ceremonies. My original plan was to just hold up a mic while sitting in the front row, but since we got there early, I wandered to the sound boards at the back of the room, and the helpful gents there wired my little Edirol R1 directly into the board. It made for a far better recording.

Goofy humor for the opening ceremonies, as ususal.

Then I went back to our seats in the very front row, and we watched the opening ceremonies. I have to say that such goings-on usually fill me with a combination of dread, embarrassment and boredom, all of which were happily evaded here. Some decent comedy about the launch of the weird looking Armadillo building as a spaceship preceded short and well-delivered speeches by the previous con chair, current con-co-chairs, and the mumble-something mayor(?) of Glasgow who did particularly well. Short and to-the-point it ended well before everyone was hoping to leave. They then ushered the crowd into an incredibly generous reception. Much wine and other libations were served up -- a lot more than I would ever have expected for such a huge crowd. We were entertained by a duet performing on keyboards and Theremin. Alas the speakers they were using were a bit on the dodgy side and the auditorium was not kind to the music -- boomy and cavernous. But an appropriate if under-amplified musical accompaniment.

Next up was for Claire and I one of the highlights of the day. This was a panel on "Room 101 With Guests of Honor", including Fan Greg Pickersgill, Christopher Priest, Connie Willis and moderator Bridget Bradshaw. I sort of expected something rather dark and disturbing, but Greg Pickersgill set the tone with his bit about fans who live in what he called "the moving wave of the present" -- that is, the idea that anything that happened in fandom in the FITY OR SO YEARS THAT HAVE COME BEFORE just doesn't quite matter because IT'S ALL ABOUT ME. He got us laughing and Christopher Priest and Connie Willis had us in stitches as all three of them traded war stories about the Panel from Hell. If you've been to a convention then you've been in a panel from hell, which to my mind most commonly involves an audience member who really feels that they should have been on the panel and decides that they must hold forth. For Claire and I, this was better than a visit to any comedy club. It was totally, side-splittingly hilarious, though Christopher Priest did take a serious moment to mention the US gent who has decided to take as his pen name, you guessed it -- Christopher J. Priest, "because it's cool." What's more, the guy is apparently something of a jerk in the publishing world, so the real Christopher Priest is now having to deal with a rep that is not his. Most unpleasant! But still, laughter for all in the end. Great guests, great time, great panel. Perfect con day.

Followed up by another panel, in a huge room and featuring Al Reynolds, Richard Morgan, Ken Macleod, Andy Adams and Carolina Gomez Lagerlof, who works in the Swiss Patent office and helped clear up the many murky legalities of the "copyrighting DNA". The audience here was pretty god, though one gent did seem like he was going to rush the stage.

By the time we were out of there it was nearly 8 PM. Claire and I had dinner with friends in the super-upscale Thai restaurant. We stayed up way too late and had too much fun, which, is I suppose, the point of such gatherings.

The downside of all this is my sleep --already disturbed was even more off-kilter that night, so that I was waking up at 1 AM. I managed to get back to sleep and even managed to get up at 6:30 the next morning. But apparently, my hour is up and now I have to paste-up and post, so more one Friday later, much later, probably, alas -- on Sunday. We'll see. (Pix to follow.)
08-04-05: Not a second to spare

Actually, I have to be off in about ten or so minutes to talk to Ian McDonald, so I literally don't have more than a couple of moments. I'll be on the job today and see if I can't get something more posted tonight. Saw some great panels yesterday; Science and the Scientist on TV, a reading by Alastair Reynolds' from his new novel, a hilarious panel on "What would you put in Room 101" with Fan GOH Greg (may be butchering this name) Pickersgill, Christopher Priest, and Connie Willis. It turned into a Panel from hell panel and everybody was in stitches the whole time.

In case of an atmospheric emergency, makie sure you hook a cup up witht he correct atmosphere to your face! Opening ceremonies for Interaction.

Excellent, effective opening ceremonies, then another great panel with Al Reynolds, Richard Morgan, Ken Macleod, and more) I'll name them when I have a moment more to write about this because they were all very good -- about "Can you copyright your DNA?" Phwew! Got to run, more later!
08-03-05: Addendumb: Don't Take the Camera Unless You Put the Card back In

Well, we just got back from registering, sans piccies because YT forgot to put the card in the camera. Rerwards of not researching number 457: turns out the hotel is relatively distant from the event, even when you hop on the train. And here in Glasgow, the weather is even more changeable than in Santa Cruz, so you might step out into a bit of murk only to find yourself in a torrential rain 5 minutes later.

Not Sydney. Glasgow Updated: Starship Armadillo!

When we realized how distant convention center was, we decided to buy a train ticket that allowed us unlimited travel between the hotel and the center, which looks like a junior version of the Sydney Opera House. That involved getting our pictures taken, which involved putting pound coins into a booth. That done, we headed to the center, and got registered, got the very nice book -- which they offer in a slipcased hardcover for a mere ten pounds. I passed.

The schedule looks pretty hectic with about four people appearing in the first round I'd like to see; Dennis Danvers, whose new novel I just finished, Simon R. Green, and a seminar on scientists in SF TV. I'm inclined to head for the seminar.

Well, I'd best get back up the room and my wife whom I told some time ago I was going downstairs to send an email, to which I've already received my reply.

Next time, a journey with the camera and the card!
08-03-05: From the Massive Market Papberback Book to Waterstone's in Glasgow: A Book-Oriented Travelogue to the UK

[Last minute note to mention I'm so frickin' unfamiliar with blog-o-style that I had to jigger what you saw (or earlier today from my perspective) abou to make it somewhat reasonable. I promise not to overly get it.]

Well, we're here, or at least most of us. Bits and pieces seem to have been sheared off in transit, but I'm actually plugged in (using the Apple World Traveler Kit) and typing away in the Corus Hotel here in Glasgow. Along the way I noted a couple of book-related items of interest as well as the usual boxcar full of travel joys and woes.

A depressingly non-liteary selection in SFO.

We left the hotel in San Fran Francisco at 9:30 AM. Silly us. We thought that shuttle would just pop us directly to the airport. Instead, we were the first of many hotels that the shuttle picked up passengers from. We'd left ourselves some twenty or so minutes to get to the airport, and it took nearly forty. Fortunately, because our flight stopped in Chicago, it wasn't really an international flight, and so we didn't require that full two hours in the airport at SFO. Thus, we found ourselves with enough time for me to take a peek at the airport book racks in SFO, and I must say I was shocked.

OK, so I do have this perhaps weird interest in how books are sold at airports, based solely on an essay by Harlan Ellison I remember reading sometime in the distant past. In it, he wrote about how there was guy whose job it was to drive around O Hare airport continually taking out books that hadn't sold on his last loop, replacing them with books that someone thought would sell. It was the world of bookselling evolution insanely accelerated. And thus, a weird obsession is born.

Once we were settled enough, I took my camera over to the shocking-to-me racks at SFO. Why shocking? Well, I like to think of San Francisco as a literary sort of city and I assumed that would be reflected in the book kiosks. But that was clearly not the case. Talk about ugh!

Opinion sinking, the best sellers in SFO. Not my best life now!

Moldy Koontz titles proudly represented the best that specualtive fiction had to offer.
The selection of books there made the worst grocery store look positively erudite. Essentially, you looked to have about 20 bestsellers by about 15 authors. In the world of weird fiction -- or what had to pass -- Dean R. Koontz was King, more than even Stephen King. He had one of those must-be-odious paperback originals in his Frankenstein series, and batches of reprints of older and surely better titles. Here was the first airport book store where I saw only one Stephen King novel! Shocking. Not a Star * novelization in sight, and I had to classify that as a bad thing. But it gets worse, folks yes it gets worse. I had my first run-in with the Massive Market Paperback Book.

I saw someone reading this Vince Flynn novel on the plane.
What is this, you ask? The Massive Market Paperback book is yet another way to more efficiently separate the casual reader from their money, offer less value for more money because clearly, far too many people are actually reading. Here's what you get. These books are the same width as Mass Market Paperbacks, the same font size and the same binding. They're not one whit easier to read or nicer in any way shape or form. What they are, however is taller by about what, an inch or an inch and a half? And more expensive, each of them clocking in at $9.95. They make trade paperback look positively generous. They offer all the disadvantages of both formats. Claire called them, "the new American book for the new American lap," and I think that gets it in one. Fatter and stupider books for fatter and stupider readers. Yuk!

Once we got on the plane at SFO, the first part of the journey was pretty good. I whipped through about half of Robert Sydney/Dennis Danvers' 'The Bright Spot' and enjoyed it, while Claire read her second Tor Paranormal romance. Other than the mechanical aspects of the romantic narrative -- she says that something "hot" has to happen at a regular interval -- she rather enjoys them as classic American Cheese. All hail American Cheese! If we just carpet bomb the world with these babies, we'll win the battle for freedom without firing a single shot.

In O'Hare, I expected I'd find a similar literary wasteland, but I was shocked to find the kiosks were far better equipped with selection extending to the heavily hyped 'The Traveler' by John Twelve Hawks and a passel of what youd find in the first set of tables in say an Odors or Be Dullton in the average American metropolis. Nothing great -- and the Massive Market Paperbacks were in evidence as here too -- but at least more than thirty titles total.

Once we were headed for the UK, as time wound back and jet lag set in, I had enough time to take a gander at what was being read aboard the plane. I saw a couple of Harry Potters, one of the Massive Market paperbacks I'd seen in the airport and even a Newt Gingrinch and William R. Fortschen alternate history titled 'Never Call Retreat'. Man they really put the bucks into the latter -- they're illustrated, crudely to my mind, but if you want to read about the North versus the South, at least you'll get your share of bullet-riddled corpses. Well, its better than the in-flight magazines. I know, I checked.

We were aboard the fannish express, as one of the passengers dubbed it. I had a delightful conversation with a fan of some note who goes by the moniker of Wombat, and I swear that I've seen something either by or about him in my travels through this exotic realm. He told me of his thirty-something years in this world, starting with a con in Bristol back in 1972. Man time flies. It was pretty easy to spot-the-fan on the flight, and wearing my "Rolling Darkness Tour 2004" T shirt, I was not exception. (RD2005 is well past the planning stages and coming to a bookstore near you; stay tuned here for more details once this whirlwind tour is past!)

I managed to finish 'The Bright Spot' on the second leg of the journey, not really sleep a wink, and arrived in Glasgow having started the 'Anansi Boys' by Neil Gaiman with the now bannering at websites near you advert of "God is dead. Meet the kids." Cute, and less so flashed in your face every twenty seconds.

Nice place to visit.
Pretty well wiped out, we staggered out of the terminal with enough brain cells and British pounds to catch a bus with several other fans to the heart of Glasgow. For those of you who are clueless as I was, that's Glaz-go, not glas-gau. Just a point of order as I murder one British place name after another, leaving a trail of dead USAisms in my wake.

Once at the hotel I promptly learned that "WIFI" on the website DOES NOT mean WIFI in the rooms. No, no, no. I love the Corus hotel, and I'm glad we picked that over the Holiday Inn. We were trying to leave the US behind and in that aspect succeeded admirably. The rooms are very cute, especially as regards the implication of small in the word cute. But WIFI access takes place downstairs and requires a BTOpen contract. I hope you appreciate the sacrifice we make for you! Just to bring you pictures of books and places.

Once I got that all sorted out and drained my pocketbook (or in this case, the wife's CC with her permission, of course), we struck out for a walk through Glasgow, with the intention of finding her some walking shoes. Glasgow is a pretty peculiar combination of wonderful ancient buildings with a crust of modern chain-store fungus growing in the many cracks and crevices. We ambled about and I became more and more punchy. Lightheaded and starting to stumble as my gyroscope gave out -- and those who know me know the old gyro only works intermittently in the best of circumstances -- I finally made it to a Waterstone's.

My wife took this picture of the Glasgow mall.
I have to wonder about that apostrophe, but I'll presume that they know what they're doing in the birthplace of the English language. Now, from what I can gather, Waterstone's is the UK version of Odors (That stench had taken root between some fine buildings in the downtown Glasgow promenade, and we know this because I enjoyed Ramsey Campbell's fine 'The Overnight'. No "Texts" to be found, alas, haunted or otherwise.)

But such is the wonder that featured in the window was Christopher Brookmyre's latest 'All Fun and Games Until Somebody Loses an Eye', and I was fortunate enough to pick up one of a very few signed editions in the store itself. Now he does live near Glasgow, so I suppose I shouldn't be surprised but that's what you get when you travel to the home country of the your favorite authors. Good things.

By the time we picked that up, gyro failures were becoming alarming dangerous, as the cobbled sidewalks transmogrified into obstacle courses. This effect was not ameliorated by fish and chips and a beer at O'Briens, a nice enough sort of Denny's-where-you-order-at-the-bar. I always have to get over the shock of restaurants where and businesses where you can smoke inside when I leave the super-sheltered enclave of Santa Cruz. With the stumbling effect mysteriously magnified by a good pint of Ten-something on an essentially empty stomach, we barely made it back to the Corus. Now, it's 5:17 PM local time -- 9:17 Wednesday morning back in Santa Cruz where I know the entire household is asleep. Claire's asleep here and as usual, I'm banging away on my column. Situation normal!

Hotel home.

Oh wait, I'm calling it a "blog" so I can join the "blogosphere". I thought I left blog behind when I moved away from SoCal's San Gabriel Valley, where there's so much blog you can barely see the mountains.

But you can always see the books. More later!


Last night, after the entry, I did get to go on Mr. Toad's wild ride with my wife behind the wheel. Though we live only about an hour from San Francisco, we rarely travel there. I go up to KQED studios regularly but otherwise we stay in Santa Cruz. But as yesterday was Claire's birthday, we decided to meet with some friends who live in Walnut Creek; they came to our hotel, and we headed off to Pacifica for dinner, because we never met a beach town we didn't like. And we loved Pacifica, it was foggy and the waves were huge and craggy, not like the calm waters of Monterey Bay.

But as we explored Pacifica, it didn't seem like we were going to find a restaurant. When we asked a local, he directed us to Half Moon Bay "just twenty minutes away".

We had our doubts about that, and all of us expected him to send us back to Santa Cruz. Lively discussion ensued, and we eventually decided to go the The Cliff House, a famous SF restaurant, on, well -- a cliff by the sea. Claire likes to drive places without actually looking at a map, while I prefer to consult a map and go directly from A to B. Claire was driving, and so we went from A (Pacifica) to B (The Cliff House) via C-Z. We found ourselves careening out into the out reaches of coastal San Francisco and ended up in the kind of neighborhood where the nannies and gardeners make six-figure salaries, down on a beach-dead end. Kind souls gave us the vaguest directions I have ever decided to follow, and we drove through neighborhoods great and small as I became more and more agitated. "Look, there's K!" I say. "T! Where's The Cliff House??!?" until we practically drove into it. Beautiful spot, and great food, nice dinner, lots of back-and-forth about the evils of government in general and ours in specific.

So, dinner over, now we're heading back to our Comfort Suites. Do we just ask and get on the freeway, make a beeline back? NO. Claire takes us once again on the scenic route, which was immensely beautiful, fog-shrouded California coastline. I'm beginning to think we'll end up in Santa Cruz, when she cuts in and we head into some really fog-shrouded mountains. She ignores my pleas to take the freeway and instead heads further into the fog. No, we dont make a U-turn and go back to the 280 on-ramp, we drive into anonymous coastal hills in fog so thick we can't see more than a few car-lengths. When we finally do see a freeway onramp, I get my chance to make a suggestion...the wrong one. And so we're off the freeway again, and sliding through slick streets down past I-sure-as-hell-don't-know-what-or-where, and into eventually San Bruno. Then like a miracle we pop on the 101 and we're back at the hotel in minutes. A nice traveling adventure and we havent even left yet. Think what will happen when we get behind the wheel of a car on the wrong side of the road. You've been warned.

It's in the final minutes here before the big lift-off to Glasgow. All this time contraction and expansion has my head in a tizzy. On one hand, I'll arrive in Glasgow in 24 hours -- 8:30 AM, Glasgow time, 24 hours from now. On the other hand, I'll get there about midnight our time. Well, FWIW, that means all I have to do is to sleep from 8 PM till midnight our time, and that gives me the normal four hours. I've got precisely 34 minutes to get posted and packed. We'll see if I can get this suitcase I have on the carry-on luggage.

08-01-05: UK Trip Blog

OK, I'm finally giving in and writing a fricking blog.

I hope you're happy.

At least as happy as I am. We're taking this trip slowly, which means that we dont leave until tomorrow, and we left today at noon, to head up to San Francisco. We got ourselves one of those stay-the-night-and-park-for-two-weeks deals, at the freeway close Comfort Suites. Frankly, it's pretty rockin' except for the fact that the chair I'm sitting in to write this is too low. We had a lovely afternoon, I dozed, and started reading my next book, 'The Bright Spot' by Robert Sydney, who turns out to be Dennis Danvers in a clever disguise. I've been onto Danvers since 1991, when I picked up a remaindered copy of Wilderness. So far, I'm liking The Bright Spot. And thus now back to it, trying to get a bit more rest than normal. I'll get up early on the morrow and post something for Wednesday, as I got a couple of books worth a bit of discussion minutes before I walked out the door.

That's it for today's Blog.