I first made my way to a Conference on the Fantastic in 1983. It was the fourth Conference and the last held in Boca Raton under the sponsorship of the Thomas Burnett Swann Fund. I was still pretty much of a pup at the time, half a year into my first (and current) tenure-track job. I had written a dissertation on fantasy literature and gotten it published, but I wasn’t sure that one could make a career out of it. Was anyone else interested? Was there anyone I could talk to about the stuff I loved?
I was barely familiar with academic meetings and completely unfamiliar with SF conventions. The SwannCon seemed to be a bit of both. It was full of personalities, people who left swirling wakes behind them as they passed through the meeting rooms and hallways. There was Harlan Ellison, single-handedly ending the connection with the Swann Foundation. There was Marshall Tymn, who seemed to be organizing some sort of secret military campaign. There was Brian Aldiss, who managed to make an academic discussion as entertaining as a music hall turn.
I hardly noticed the big guy in the background, although I do remember that he seemed to be aware of my work, which is a sure way to endear oneself to any writer. Only later did I realize that he was aware of everyone’s work. As the conference went on, and as I came back in later years, I started listening for those short, sharp, sardonic comments from the fellow in the back of the room who had evidently read every work of fantasy ever published and every critical article addressing the genre. His questions didn’t show off his knowledge, but they provided an opportunity for the speakers to say something smarter than anything they had put into their papers.
I also started to notice that Bob Collins was ubiquitous. He seemed to make it to every session, but at the same time, he was always somewhere in the groups of people working out problems or planning future events. He never seemed to be in charge, but things happened around him. He spoke little, but nearly always last: there was nothing else to say.
I have since come to realize that Bob Collins is the Conference. This annual meeting, which has transformed the study of the fantastic from the hobby of a few isolated eccentrics into a world-wide enterprise, would not exist without him. Nor would it function the way it does: as a sort of Invisible College of friends and co-conspirators in the fight against the twin evils of mediocrity and academic prejudice. We are created in Bob’s image, and it is good.