ISFIC Press, 2006, 309 pages, US$30.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-9759156-3-9
In Science Fiction fannish circles, much is made of Worldcon’s place as the convention of the year for all SF fans. Regardless of your sub-genre affiliation, Worldcon is “the gathering of the tribes” of Science Fiction, the one general-interest convention where all fans can find something interesting to do. Worldcon has been running yearly since 1939 and one of its greatest achievement has been to expand and embrace the myriads of sub-groups that have sprung from the original crucible of SF fandom.
In this context, a collection of Worldcon Guest of Honor speeches has an interest that runs deeper that the merely fannish. What editors Mike Resnick and Joe Scilari have done with this book is give us a rare oral history of the genre, tracking it year after year as it evolved in a society itself in constant change. Some of the language of the book reflects its era all too well, for instance, as casual sexism is prevalent in the earlier half of the book, and racial issues in the Sixties are discussed (positively) as “the problem of the Negro”. Stilted language and period references to now-forgotten celebrities add to the flavour of the collection.
A number of speeches attempt to confront the genre and its place in contemporary society, which is interesting to compare as the decades move on. Robert A. Heinlein’s famous 1941 speech (you know, the one that said “even the corniest of [SF]… no matter how badly it’s written, has a distinct therapeutic value because all of it has as its primary postulate that the world does change.”) marked a way of thinking about Science Fiction. Later, Robert Silverberg would confront the social turbulence of the late sixties by encouraging SF writers to “transform our readers with the intensity of what we see.” Reading those speeches is like getting a pure dose of manifesto fever, fit to inspire you about the possibilities of the genre as social driver and literary force.
Some other speeches are pure inner-fandom wankery: The opening salvo of the book couldn’t have been better chosen: Frank R. Paul’s address exemplifies the type of “fans are slans” thinking that came along the early days of SF fandom (and, by the same token, the first recorded geek groups): “The Science Fiction Fan may very well be called the advance guard of progress.” Paul isn’t the only one to stroke fans’ egos like this –though by the latter half of the book, you can sense a number of speakers consciously working against the temptation.
Other Guests of Honor want to change the world, and use their speeches as platforms. Many of the suggestions haven’t survived the years well: A.E. Van Vogt suggestions for self-improvement now smell like a mish-mash of positive thinking and straight-out woo-woo. Harlan Ellison’s (pre-written) exhortation to fight for the ERA now seems both noble and insignificant. Other suggestions to take SF and bring it closer to contemporary social problems (such as Silverberg’s) are generally more interesting.
Then there are writers who take full advantage of their tribune as Guest of Honor to talk about, well, themselves. Reaction to those pieces is unpredictable: I found George R.R. Martin’s 2003 childhood recollections to be uninteresting, but Joe Haldeman’s 1990 “How to Get a Job Like Mine” career overview was fascinating. Lest we forget, the SF community is a big extended family where the top writers generally know each other: Tales of SF careers usually bring along dozens of anecdotes about other SF names, and it takes a fan to enjoy this.
Two speeches are not speeches but interviews: One can understand the strange atmosphere of the Strugatsky Brothers’ 1987 interview (through an interpreter handling the English-to-Russian-and-back translation), but the result on the page isn’t all that interesting. Far more successful, at least in written format, is the 2002 Vernor Vinge interview by Gregory Benford: It’s a fascinating slice of two top-notch minds at play, peppered with scientific jokes and tossed-off concepts.
Then, finally, there are the one-off speeches, sui generis to the point of being unclassifiable. The most memorable of them is certainly Theodore Sturgeon’s 1962 speech, a piece best experienced than described, even in text form. (It must have been an amazing performance.)
The collection’s biggest disappointment is that Resnick and Scilari, despite what I assume must have been heroic efforts, have only managed to collect maybe half of all Worldcon GoH speeches: the rest are either lost or forgotten, though they haven’t stopped looking and hope to produce a companion volume when they finish collecting what can be discovered. I find it amazing that some of their “lost” speeches include numerous ones from the nineties (in fact, the book has nothing between 1990 and 2000), and I truly hope they’ll be able to find as many of them as possible. I also wouldn’t mind seeing even a “wrong” transcription of Harlan Ellison’s actual 1978 Iguanacon II speech rather than the explanation/article that took its place.
But Worldcon Guest of Honor Speeches also makes one long for another type of book: An oral history of Worldcons in general, of infamous incidents, of organizational problems and small triumphs, of fannish scandals and professional woes. I was lucky enough to be there at a few of this century’s Worldcons, but I wouldn’t mind learning a lot more about the previous ones.