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An SF Con and a Visit to Madison

Today’s topics are a trip to an SF con near Chicago, and a visit to Madison, Wisconsin.

Flying over the Rockies to Chicago, looking down at a little town by the edge of the mountains. So archetypal, somehow. I can never believe that some people want to close the plastic shutters on their seat windows in the plane. So they can—do what? Look at a video? When right outside the window you’re seven miles above the ground looking down at cloud castles and landscapes heretofore unseen by human eye?

I was what they call the “GoH” or “writer guest of honor” at Windycon, a small (1,000 attendees) SF con held in a hotel in mall parking lot Lombard, Illinois, nearly an hour’s drive south of Chicago. My writing isn’t very popular among the people who go to cons, so it tends to be a discouraging experience for me to go to a con.

I mean, I already know that not all that many people read my books, but to be on a panel and to look out at a small group of people of whom only one or two has read me, and usually that was a long time ago…well, it’s not something I enjoy. But I figured it was time to try a con, and the GoH honor drew me in, and I wanted to have a look at Chicago.

At any con there are always a few fellow mutants in the mix, case in point, Greg Ketter, owner of the Dreamhaven Books in Minneapolis. I’ve known this guy for over thirty years and—hallelujah—he had a few of my books for sale in the dealers’ room. Nobody else had them in stock. And even Greg didn’t have any of my recent self-pubbed Transreal Books novels. All the more reason to have Night Shade Books reprint nine books from my backlist, a worthy project now underway.

The hotel bar was cozy, with a Chicago feel. Even though I don’t drink anymore, I love places like this. They feel safe, they’re like my early adolescent images of the way the world was going to be. Sitting here, I’m looking forward to my panels and my big talk!

Previsualization: My handlers lead the circus animal from his cage in the shadows behind the tent. He blinks at the bright light, slightly confused. He attempts a growl, someone throws a soda can at him, he snarls. Kafka territory.

I bought a great Cthulhu T-shirt (modeled on Sheppard Fairey’s Obama poster). “Cthulhu for REAL Change.” Got it from Barb VanTilburg of OffWorld Designs—she runs it, and her husband Ray designs a lot of the shirts. They drive from con to con in a big van, selling their wares, kind of a gypsy existence.

The thing about cons…they’re not all that much about the actual books, they’re about the media…comics, video, movies, TV, t-shirts, and free-form user-designed costumes. A con is kind of like a reef, with all kinds of curious critters living on it. A short-lived reef—what Peter Lamborn Wilson calls a TAZ, or a Temporary Autonomous Zone.

Speaking of making costumes—or what the fans call cosplay—these two guards were pretty cool. Another upside was that a con staffer called David Iverson got me a good audio of my “Welcome to You Cyberpunk Future” talk which I posted as a podcast. The con organizers were nice to me. Many thanks in particular to Daniel (Gundo) and Teresa Gunderson for inviting me, and to Marinda Darnell who helped me settle in and stay afloat.

I liked giving a reading of my story, “Attack of the Giant Ants” to a group of twelve (few but fit). [Check out the 2014 podcast of me reading this.] And it was sweet when a handful of tru-fans showed up to get their copies of my books signed. Always refreshing to see those old, and sometimes forgotten, items in the hands of someone who treasures them.

Of course a lot of the people getting signatures are just dealers, looking to flip some product, but, hey, their activities are in some sense generating value for my brand. But the ones I love are the elite core who really do care about my work, the ones who say, “This book changed my life.” I live for that.

Despite the good moments, I did have a very strong flash of “What am I doing here?” when I awoke on each of my three mornings at the con. It’s usually like that. And then I feel guilty and ungrateful for tiring of these dear and all-too-human souls. This annual event is their source of joy, their gay holiday of fun and magic, and they look forward to it, and work on it, and plan for it, and make all the pieces come together, and I, the aloof interloper, I have grave doubts. So I’m a horrible person. What a payoff.

“Why can’t you just relax, Rudy?” says my wife’s voice in my head. “Be happy for them that they’re having fun. They’re touching. Love them.” Well, maybe my wife wouldn’t go that far. Maybe that’s Jesus’s voice, or the Buddha’s, or the White Light’s…

One day I left the con for three hours to go see the Thor: Ragnarok movie on an Imax screen in a 19-screen AMC theater across the parking-lot, between the hotel and the JCPenney store. What an overdone heap of bombast and glitz, that Thor flick. Fun at times, though. Jeff Goldblum was great, teasing Thor and saying “the -ass place or ass land” instead of Asgard. So Beavis and Butthead. And you could order food from your seat in the theater, I got an open flatbread with a Philly cheese steak on it, so delicious in the dark, gobbling it like a wild animal (released from my cage in the shadows behind the tent).

Anyway, I got through it, and, like I say, there were a few good moments amid the con ennui. I kept being polite to people, even delivering a saintly homily at the opening ceremony about how it warmed my heart to see their joy at their little communal festival.

Well, okay, I was nice to everyone except for a fellow panelist on a “What are your fave books? panel. It was all the GoHs on the panel: GoHs for science, art, videogames, writing, cosplay, and signing (in the sense of translating talks into sign language in real time).

The panelist sitting next to me wouldn’t shut up about some dipshit fantasy books, lavishing cliché praises upon them, trading heartfelt hosannahs with a another motor-mouthed fellow panelist, who claimed to be the “moderator.” And they get onto William Goldman’s Princess Bride (a fine work but, I would humbly submit, not the greatest novel ever written).

And I manage to break in and mention that Goldman wrote a good coming-of-age novel called The Temple of Gold and that it was, in a way, a bit like Catcher in the Rye. And the panelist next to me cries: “The Temple of Gold is SO much better than Catcher in the Rye!” And I’m like, “Well, they’re different.” And the panelist is like “No, Catcher in the Rye is whiny garbage!” And, without turning my head, I deliver what is, for me, the mild-mannered math prof / SF writer, a withering put-down. “And you’re an…English teacher? Hm.”

And then I rode an Uber to the airport, which was closer than downtown Chi, and at the airport I got a regional bus to Madison, Wisconsin, where daughter Georgia lives. Wife Sylvia was already there. She’d side-stepped the con. It was a four hour trip, I hadn’t done a long bus ride in decades, especially not alone, and it was kind of fun. That unplugged feeling.

Here’s a random shot of an intersection near our mid-journey stop in Janesville, Wisconsin. What if you just got off the bus in some place like this and tried to make a life? Turing a corner in time.

The University of Wisconsin football team is a big deal in “Mad Town,” and some impish sculptor erected an amusing monument next to stadium. It’s a statue shaped like an obelisk of about two thousand concrete footballs. I love it, although some people think it’s silly. But I like art to be witty and fun, as opposed to bombastic and grim.

Madison has a great art museum, thanks to UW, and we went around the place in the company of a certain impish grandchild. Dig this shot of her silhouetted against some art-glass and a window. If you shoot enough, sometimes you catch a good one. Or, as my self-deprecating mother-in-law Pauline used to say of herself, “Sometimes even the blind hand finds an acorn.”

Here’s a work in this museum that really got to me. “Untitled” by David Klamen. Of course it’s “untitled,” because you can’t see the picture in the picture, there’s not enough light, and it’s all black, and here it is, and you’ve been searching for it your whole life, and you can’t see it. Like a dream. What made Klamen’s painting really perfect in this setting is that the museum architecture kind of matched what you see in the picture.

One last shot for today. This is the hook on the inside of the bathroom door at Mickies Dairy Bar on Monroe Street in Madison, not far from the stadium. I figure the hook’s been in place for forty or fifty years. Look how deep it’s dug into the wood. Awesome. Nothing is ever over, nothing is lost, god is everywhere.

9 Responses to “An SF Con and a Visit to Madison”

  1. Joel Ward Says:

    I really wanted to go to this con but the schedule didn’t work. Nice to see you with Greg Ketter – recently met back up with him after many years and he’s as nice a man and bookseller as he ever was. I have so many books at home that I bought from by mail and at cons long ago. Maybe someday I can get all my Ruckerbooks signed. Being from Madison (where I met Greg at a Wiscon when I was in high school), loved that part of your journey too, Rudy. You’re always very positive on your blog and I enjoy that greatly.

  2. Tim Says:

    I like that impish grandchild photo.

    Getting off the interstate and looking for gas stations in little towns would always put me in that mindset of what if I lived here. When I lived on the coast, I imagined all of the people driving along 101 wondering what it would be like to be me.

  3. Tobos Roreuho Says:

    Cool picts and interesting commentary! I especially liked reading your experience on the airplane.

    I think a lot of people enjoy the popular item du jour and can’t be bothered with looking outside the plane window and seeing the big picture. Although, I think that abstract vantage point is what makes for the interesting viewpoint. I’m not a fan of heights myself and can find it dizzying (maybe that’s why you were feeling aloof). It’s nice that you take time to see the beauty on a more grounded level.

    As for the panelists at the con, it amazes me the number of English teachers that don’t have a clue about human nature (even though that’s what it’s suppose to be about…).

    I also wanted to mention, that’s a pretty cool gnarly zone between the boring prairies and the chaotic mountain range.

  4. Gregory Benford Says:

    Greg Ketter is a mensch who keeps the sf flame.
    I too eagerly watch down from airplanes. Gives sense of proportion and history, also whazzat moments.
    Cons are best when you know plenty people, as I was at Loscon last week. Readers are thin on the ground at cons but worth it still–especially San Joe next year!

  5. Tobos Roreuho Says:

    Sorry about that earlier post. It sounded like I was flying pretty high myself and got lost into that picture! Do you know if Greg has any good recommendations for sf books. I really like that lastest blade runner movie that is/was out. I was reading Le Guin’s The Dispossessed but I’m now living the dream so to speak and sort of lost interest. I might still pick it back up. Any thoughts?

  6. De Jane Says:

    Hey Joel! I would also love to get all my books Rucksigned except I don’t have any hardcopies LOL. I’m a broke student from Canada so traveling to the states might be a little tricky! Someday maybe as well…

  7. Rudy Says:

    Thanks for the comments, guys. Greg, I plan to be at the Worldcon in SJ this summer, so hope to see you there. Will certainly sign books at that con, also when I do a reading at Borderlands Books in SF this spring sometime. Borderlands tends to carry some pre-signed books by me in any case. Joel, thanks for saying my blog posts are positive. Maybe one of these days I’ll do an appearance in Madison. Tobos, I thought your comments were interesting, no worries about sounding out-there. Book recommendations? Recently I enjoyed Doctorow’s “Walkaway” and Brown’s “Tropic of Kansas”—reviewed both of those in recent posts on this blog. And, as always, if you’ve never read Phil Dick’s “Scanner Darkly,” that’s a big treat, along with Stross’s “Accelerando”. De Jane, there are a number of my titles free online (See the “FREE Books” link at the upper right corner of my blog page), and you can forge my signature onto a paper napkin and I’ll be virtually at your side.

  8. Roy Whelden Says:

    Rudy, is that truly your own “impish grandchild” in the Madison museum photo?

  9. Rudy Says:

    Roy, yep that is my granddaughter. I liked the view of the art glass and the window, but it needed more, so I asked her to walk across in front of me, and I happened to catch that impish pose. I’d like to include people in my photos more often, as they do liven things up!

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