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Speaking at Torcon 3Spider's Online Diary

30 August, 2003--Toastmaster Speech

for Torcon 3: The 61st World Science Fiction Convention

© 2003 by Spider Robinson; all rights reserved.

My fellow Americans, welcome to Canada--please don't be alarmed, your sidearms will be returned to you when you leave, that funny colored paper is nearly as good as real money, and the people smiling at you on the sidewalk are not mocking you. I know it will seem odd to walk about unarmed, but you see, once we established universal health care here in Canada, and realized we'd all be paying for it in taxes all our lives, we lost a lot of our enthusiasm for shooting each other up. Robert Heinlein once called this country "a place where the natives were so clever they paid not a cent to Washington!" Nobody told him about Ottawa… Oh, and we really apologize for that 1812 thing.

My fellow Canadians, welcome to the Metro Toronto Convention Center--please don't be alarmed: we invited all these Americans, and they will be leaving as soon as the weapons of mass destruction are located and Celine Dion has been apprehended and silenced forever. They had originally intended to enforce a single-party government pretending to be a representative democracy throughout the land, but it's been explained to them that we've already taken care of that ourselves. So have they, coincidentally.

My fellow humans from other countries, continents and corners of the round earth, welcome to Canada. Right now you can get some terrific deals on beef dishes here...but I hope you brought plenty of mosquito repellent because we haven't got any to spare. If you haven't, try to get bitten by the East Nile variety. Here in Canada we currently permit gay people to marry, our courts recently struck down the laws against possession of marijuana, British Columbia grows the finest pot on the planet, handguns are a rarity, we average fewer murders per year than the Texas justice system...and for some reason we find ourselves one of the world's most popular tourist destinations. We figure it's the maple syrup. If you should encounter large moody mammals with white fur, be careful: those are our famous bi-polar bears.

All of you, welcome to the 61st World Science Fiction Convention, Torcon 3. We'd like to thank Tom Doherty for the use of the name Tor, and Condoleeza Rice for the use of the word "con." We certainly could not have more prestigious Guests of Honor--beginning with our Ghost of Honor, Robert Bloch, whose very name has come to stand for the inability to write a goddam word....Frank Kelly, a painter so old he invented the Freas, and made Alfred E. a New Man....a fan guest who's such a good bullshit artist his very name is Mike Liar......and finally, of course, the distinguished producer of nearly all the Beatles' albums, Geo Martin.

I was Toastmaster for the 50th ever Worldcon, and now I find food for thought in the fact that this, the 61st World Science Fiction Convention, will be the 50th time that Hugo Awards have been given out for excellence in the field of sf. For one thing, it says something about our collective intelligence that it took fandom 11 years to think of holding a popularity contest.

But if I may get semiserious for just a moment, I would like to note something about that half-century mark. My wife Jeanne's family is half Portuguese. Her grandfather Captain Frank Parsons, who recently died at age 100, was born in an era when men went over the side in two-man dories and hauled up fish from the sea with the strength of their arms; by the time he died he was a wealthy man who owned his own wharf in New Bedford and a chain of fish markets. He lived most of his life in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where every summer, every boat in town would put out to sea for a grand ceremony called The Blessing of the Fleet, in which the Archbishop would call upon God to bless their efforts in the coming season.

This tradition endured for exactly fifty years. Last year, there was no Blessing of the Fleet....because there is no longer a fleet. There is no longer a boat. There was exactly one working fishing boat left in P-Town for the Fiftieth Blessing: to hold the ceremony, they had to bring in a couple of ringers from Gloucester. A few months later, that skipper joined all the rest: surrendered his license and became a whale-watch captain, a tourist-milker. There is nobody living in Provincetown Massachusetts who earns his living by fishing--because there ain't no cod or haddock left out there. (This year's entire North Atlantic salmon crop, by the way, seems also to have disappeared.)

I think we should stop and think for a moment about the fact that, as a profession, science fiction writing seems to have outlasted pulling up fish from the sea.

Yes, our genre is in one of its periodic stages of decline; sales are down, magazines are languishing, and the few readers who haven't defected to Tolkienesque fantasy sometimes seem determined to cling like junkies to Star Trek, Star Wars, and other Hollywood Sci Fi franchises. Some of our very best have had the bad taste to die on us recently, and others have stopped working.

Nonetheless, here we still are, most of us, earning a living, some of us, and still managing to see a desirable future in the near distance, a few of us. There are still a few readers out there who somehow managed to get through the school system with an education, who find it interesting to speculate about how the world might be different than it is or ever was, and who are not terrified into weeping by the prospect of setting their VCRs. There are still some souls out there so untouched by the cynicism of the day that they fail to fall down laughing when told that technology might continue to make our lives better, that science is not soulless, that to learn is not to destroy mystery, that the stars are not irrelevant to us.

What bothers me is not so much that our industry's in decline but that in part it failed, for our lifetimes.

Our central vision, lovingly polished and presented as entertainingly as we knew how to make it, has been rejected by the world we meant to save. Because I was born in 1948, the phrase I will probably always use, automatically, to indicate that something is futuristic is "space age." There are doubtless grown adults in this room who were born after the space age ended. The very existence of the new Heinlein Award, recognizing works that inspire manned exploration of space, means that a need was perceived to foster such work. About the only part of our shared vision of the future that actually came to pass was the part where America just naturally took over the world. But while it's prepared to police a planet, the new Terran Federation is so far not interested enough to even glance at another one.

The day Apollo 11 landed, I knew men would walk on Mars in my lifetime. I'm no longer nearly so sure. The last budget put forward in Canada contained not a penny for Mars. (If you'd like to protest that, please go to and sign the petition.) Michael Lennick was co-producer of a superb Canadian documentary series about manned spaceflight, "Rocket Science," still being shown on some Discovery outlets. His next project is an in-depth examination of the growing phenomenon of people who refuse to believe we ever landed on the Moon. NOT because he sees them as amusing cranks...but because they are becoming a sizable percentage of the population. And it's hard to argue with their logic: it beggars belief, they say, that we could possibly have achieved moon flight....and then given it up.

At least people still believe that men used to fish the Grand Banks, once. Some even dream of going back.

If our dreams are not to be lost, we must redouble our efforts to spread the word. I'm not knocking fantasy--the brand of sf I write is arguably closer to fantasy than most--but if we offer readers nothing else, if we only look backwards instead of forward too, one day we will find ourselves surrounded by an electorate that has never willingly thought a single thought their great grandparents would not have recognized--that is living not even in the 20th century, but in the 19th. That's not acceptable. I don't believe we're going to let that happen. I think we're just about to ignite a new renaissance in modern science fiction, and that our next 50 years will make the first 50 look pale by comparison.

If that does happen, the people who will make it so are in this room, now. I salute you, and offer you the words of the late Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, founder of the SF Zen Center, who transplanted an entire religion from one culture to a vastly different one back in the early 60's: one of his favorite sayings was: "Don't waste time."

I'd like to tell you a story now merely because it's one of my favorite stories, and because it happened only days after the last time I was a Worldcon toastmaster...and because it may provide a hint as to just what went wrong with the space program. It was during the first Bush administration. I'd had the great good fortune to be given a VIP pass to attend a space shuttle launch. When the big day dawned, my friends and wife and I passed thousands of stopped cars on the shoulder, cleared the checkpoint, drove over the causeway and joined the elite line of perhaps a hundred cars full of citizens privileged to watch the launch a mere mile or so away from the pad. We were somewhat dismayed when the line stopped altogether. And STAYED stopped.

The sun beat down. Air-conditioners overheated their engines. People stepped out into murderous heat to ask each other the obvious question, to which no answer was forthcoming. Fifteen minutes passed, very slowly. Up the road in the opposite direction came a motorcycle cop with a bullhorn; he drove past us very slowly, ignoring all pleas and gestures, braying, "REMAIN IN YOUR VEHICLES" over and over. Our vehicles were by now solar ovens. A million years went by...mosquitoes gorged...sunblock ran down our necks...children cried...tempers began to climb...the damn launch was only 15 min away, now--and suddenly, all became clear.

Coming toward us on the opposite side of the road at twenty kilometers an hour, shimmering in the heat, a vision: a flotilla of black stretch limousines. Surrounded by a phalanx of motorcycle cops. Chase-cars full of shooters in suits and black shades fore and aft. The truth began to dawn. Sure enough, as the second limo came even with us, five meters away, its tinted rear windows powered down, and there they were. Identical robotic waves &ghastly smiles, like terrible twin parodies of the Queen. Dan and Marilyn Quayle.

Mr. Quayle's duties as Vice President had included direct responsibility for America's space program. Three months away from leaving office, now, he had decided to pay his first visit ever to NASA turf, while they still had to let him in. We all realized we'd been kept broiling in the sun so the Secret Service could make absolutely sure there wasn't an alligator with an Uzi in one of the drainage ditches beside the road.

And as the motorcade crawled past, and Mr. Quayle waved and smiled--I swear to you--all of us gave him what here in Canada is called the Trudeau Salute.

The motorcade passed, traffic started up, and we were in time to see the ENDEAVOUR lift, the 50th shuttle launch ever--there's that magic number fifty again. If anyone had told me, back in the 1950s when I started reading science fiction, that one day I would see a spaceship take off with my own eyes...well, I'd have found it hard to imagine. But if they'd told me that on the same day I would see hundreds of Americans loyal enough to have VIP access to government property all publicly give the Vice President of the United States the finger, I'd have flatly refused to believe it.

I like to think we've all come a long way.

I will close, shamelessly, by quoting myself: with an excerpt from a book I published a few years ago called CALLAHAN'S KEY, because it describes what I saw after Dan Quayle drove away:

At first the world is nothing but horizon, endless ocean and sky, all of it still, serene. Three hundred and sixty degree Spielberg. The stillness is not perfect-there is the countdown bellowing out of those superb speaker horns, and there is the internal thunder of elevated pulse-but basically the world is as it has always been: at rest, indifferent to anything any of the scurrying ants on its surface might come up with.

Then Hell breaks loose.

A dirty white explosion spreads in all directions. At its center, beneath the stacked array, a Beast is born. It is mighty. And angry. Its roar shatters the world, splits the sky, echoes up and down the Florida coast and miles out to sea. You thought you knew what to expect, but this is louder. The sound is tangible, hits you with physical force, vibrates up your legs from the ground beneath your feet, scares the living shit out of you. Your first thought is that you are witnessing a disaster even more awful than Challenger: an on-the-pad explosion.

Then the Beast's two big brothers wake up-the giant solid rocket boosters-and Heaven, Hell, Purgatory and Limbo all break loose together and start to argue. The sound is indescribable, just short of unbearable. So insensate is the rage of this new Beast that the world itself will not have it. No matter that something the size and weight of an apartment building is sitting on its back: it lifts from the ground on a raving column of its own fury and rises impossibly into the air, becomes a thick growing tower of white smoke, the 128-ton Shuttle stack balanced on top like a pingpong ball on the stream from a firehose. The bonds of Earth can be as surly as they like: the Beast is surlier, shrugs its terrible shoulders and slips them clean.

You realize that you are pounding your hands together and screaming "Go, baby, go!" like an idiot at the top of your lungs, and you gather that everyone around you is doing the same, but you can't hear any of it. Part of you wishes you had control of your hands so that you could take photos like you planned to, and another part is amused at the audacity of the notion that this event could possibly be squeezed through a pinhole and captured on a piece of celluloid smaller than a matchbook. Instead you watch in reverent terror as a utensil built by bald apes flings 97 tons of metal and plastic 2 million mi. With 5 men aboard.

For two million years it had been only a fantasy, a monkey dream. For the first fifteen years of my own life it had still been only a fantasy, something a teacher or a scientist might laugh at you for believing in. For the next quarter-century it had been a news story-one that seemed to bore most of my fellow citizens silly. But now it was reality-real reality; that is, the part experienced by me-and the two-million-year-old dream had really come true:

The species I belonged to had figured out how to climb the biggest tree there is. We were already becoming familiar with its lowest branches.

In that moment, I knew, as fact, with utter certainty, that one day we were going to climb all the way to the top. Nothing was going to prevent us. Not presidents, proxmires, press, public opinion, economic forces, or nuclear winter.

No, it could be delayed, but it could not be stopped. This was evolution in action, before my eyes. As surely as we had come down out of the trees, as surely as we had crawled up out of the tidal pools in the first place, we were going to do this thing.

To put it in Canadian: Let's do it, eh?