I’ve been attending the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts for twelve years now, come March of 1999, but I sometimes feel that I’ve missed all the excitement in that time. I haven’t seen anyone thrown in the pool. I’ve never been present when Brian Aldiss became — how shall I put it? — imaginative. Impromptu concerts have all taken place behind my back. I don’t remember any of Bill Senior’s late-night jokes. Somehow I’ve always contrived to be absent when stewardesses are skinny dipping in the hot tub. As a party animal, I’m sort of like H. Pylori. Even though I hardly ever seem to do anything, I’m always there, and nothing appears to get rid of me.
Eventually the system I infest becomes so accustomed to me that it would feel ill for months afterward if I were ever flushed away.
But I have to say that I’ve been having a wonderful time anyway. And why shouldn’t I? After all, I get a taste of everything the system does. (I was going to say, “everything that passes through the system,” but perhaps that carries my metaphor a bit too far.) However, when I’m asked to account for my pleasure, I’m not usually so gastric. Instead, I cite the unexpected congeniality of the Ft Lauderdale Airport Hilton (affectionately hight “Castle Anthrax”); the level of discourse which naturally occurs when so many bright and well-read people get together without parading their egos at every opportunity, or imposing artificial distinctions between creation and criticism; and the steady warmth and regard of so many people that I can’t possibly mention them all by name although a very partial list would certainly include Bill Senior, Chip Sullivan, Bob Collins, Don Morse, Don Palumbo, Gary Wolfe, Dede Weil, Brian Attebery, Len Hatfield, Roger Schlobin, and Veronica Hollinger.
At least that’s what I tell other people. And it’s all true. But it leaves out the real reason I would never voluntarily miss attending the ICFA. Like Edgar Allen Poe, I can only approach the real reason obliquely. Perhaps a couple of my favorite memories from past conferences will suggest what I mean, even though I don’t feel able to express it directly. One is Gary and Dede’s poolside wedding not so long ago. No one who was there is likely to forget Charlie Brown in his tuxedo jacket and bermuda shorts, mumbling inaudible passages of science fiction; Daniel Keyes as what I can only call a flower elf, complete with lime green vest; splendid sunlight; any number of “best” men and women variously caparisoned in dresses, tuxes, t-shirts, jeans, and swimsuits; Greg Bear recording every conceivable fillip and decolletage for posterity; a throng of well-wishers; and uncounted toasts both heart-felt and humorous. The occasion was an effortless communal celebration and as such possible only because the people involved were exactly themselves.
My other memory is much more personal. Like many crucial memories, it’s at once acutely vivid and embarrassingly vague. It occurred in 1987, Houston, my first year at the ICFA, when I was guest of honor. Like every other guest of honor, for the banquet I had to sit at the head table, up on a dais, so that everyone in the room could watch me eat. But unlike every other guest of honor (or so I devoutly hope), I was in a parlous emotional state. My marriage had chosen that weekend to accelerate its long collapse, and I was so close to the ragged edge of myself that when the artist guest of honor, Michael Whelan, asked why my wife wasn’t at the banquet with me, I started crying. In front of the whole conference. Perhaps the highlight of my entire public career. And there (for reasons which may be obvious) my memory becomes vague. As far as I could tell, no one noticed or remarked on my distress. And yet, somehow without any transition I can recall, I found myself out by the pool, away from the after-dinner festivities. And I wasn’t alone: Chip Sullivan, Bill Senior, and Brian Attebery were with me. (If my memory has become vague about who was actually present, I’ll really feel embarrassed. But if I’ve remembered anyone inaccurately, I trust that he will ascribe my vagueness to my emotional state at the time.) By magic or perhaps by Divine Inspiration, Chip produced a bottle of Irish whiskey, and those three fine men simply sat and kept me company while we drank, calming me with their presence, their kindness, and their unwillingness to pry.
One thing I’m sure of: I’m going to keep on attending the ICFA until death or disaster renders that impossible.
Stephen R. Donaldson