Buy F&SF • Read F&SF • Contact F&SF • Advertise In F&SF • Blog • Forum

January 2000
 
Book Reviews
Charles de Lint
Elizabeth Hand
Michelle West
James Sallis
Chris Moriarty
 
Columns
Curiosities
Plumage from Pegasus
Off On a Tangent: F&SF Style
 
Film
Kathi Maio
Lucius Shepard
 
Science
Gregory Benford
Pat Murphy & Paul Doherty
 
Coming Attractions
F&SF Bibliography: 1949-1999
Index of Title, Month and Page sorted by Author

Current Issue • Departments • Bibliography

Plumage from Pegasus
by Paul Di Filippo

IN THE AIR

I don't get into New York City that often these days. Consequently, I'm always overwhelmed during my visits not only by the vivid stimuli attendent on that unique urban milieu but also by the effort of maintaining a mental appointment book that includes as many visits to contacts in the publishing business--editors, agents and fellow writers---as can possibly be crammed into my unavoidably brief stay.

These distractions were my only excuse for telling the Port Authority- trolling cab driver who picked me up my real line of work when he asked.

"Science fiction writer, huh?" Contrary to expectations, the cabbie was not a foreign-born low-rung struggler but a young, white, goateed guy, some member of the Tamagotchi generation earning a few bucks between Phish concerts.

It was too late now to deny my foolish admission, so, bracing myself for the flood of snide derision that so often followed such a revelation, I replied, "Yes. Just had a new novel out last year." I didn't offer my byline or the title, hoping to avoid the obligatory, "I never heard of you or your book" response. But the cabbie's next words shocked me completely.

"Let me ask your expert opinion then. Don't you think the old-fashioned plot potential of an integral Dyson Sphere has been completely superseded by the pointillistic Dyson Cloud concept?"

I couldn't find my tongue for about thirty seconds. When I managed to reply, I stammered, "Wuh-well, not entirely. There's still a lot of mileage left in the older version that even Bob Shaw didn't extract."

"Who?"

"Bob Shaw? The British writer who died not long ago---"

"Never heard of him."

"But I assumed you were a fan . . . "

The driver took a hand off the wheel to make a dismissive gesture, and we nearly ran up the business end of a garbage truck bearing the colorful urban motto, "Open wide, West Virginia!".

"Nah! I can't remember the last time I read a book."

"Movies then?"

"Old media, dude."

"You surf the e-zines?"

"Not the fiction ones. I really like the WWF site though."

My face must have registered my utter confusion. "How did you get interested in the fictional use of Dyson Spheres then?"

The insouciant driver shrugged, and we elegantly sideswiped a bike messenger. "I can't really say. It's just, like, something in the air, you know. People are always talking about some topic or other. I must have overheard a conversation and started wondering."

The rest of our intermittent dialogue was unmemorable, and by thetime the cabbie deposited me outside my hotel, I had managed to put aside the conundrum. Having my first-offered credit card embarrassingly declined at the check-in desk helped concentrate my mind on the grim realities of maneuvering through the unforgiving city in pursuit of my livelihood. So when the bellhop, tip in hand, hesitated on the threshhold of my room, watching as I unpacked a stack of my latest paperback, and then asked me, "Sir, exactly how do you portray a working nanotechnology so as to avoid rendering it indistinguishable from magic?", I was completely flummoxed.

I focused on the bellhop for the first time and saw a wizened oldster, one of those New York working stiffs who seemed to have survived from a prehistoric era. I decided to adopt a friendly manner.

"Ah, my friend, you must be an old pulps fan! Do you know I've actually shaken Jack Williamson's hand?"

"Who?"

"Aren't you perhaps a member of First Fandom, conversant with science fiction from its earliest days?"

"That Buck Rogers stuff? Never touch it!"

"Why are you quizzing me about Clarke's Law then?"

"I don't know what the hell you're talking about, mister! I ask you a simple question and you fancy it all up! Thanks for the one-dollar tip, big guy!"

With the noise of the slamming door filling my ears, I sat on the bed and tried to make sense of what had just happened. Ten minutes later, acknowledging my utter failure to comprehend anything, I got up and had a shower. Then I went to my noontime appointment.

Gardner Dozois sat in his office at Asimov's with a strange expression on his normally jolly hirsute face. Gazing abstractedly out the window, he fondled an expensive-looking chrome gadget which I mistook at first for a Star Wars prop. I clapped the editor heartily on his shoulder and made what I thought was a decent joke.

"Shouldn't you leave those toys to Scott Edelman's Sci-Fi Entertainment magazine, Gardner? After all, you're running a literary SF magazine here!"

My editor swivelled around to regard me with utter solemnity. "This isn't a toy. It's a professional-grade chef's mandoline. It slices vegetables in a special way. Watch."

From a desk drawer he took a large Bermuda onion, which he proceeded to turn into a heap of redolent slivers while I watched in total astonishment.

"That---that's wonderful, Gardner. But I wanted to talk to you about my novella . . . "

From beneath the pile of traumatized onion shreds, Gardner withdrew a soggy manuscript. "Is this it? You'd better take it back. I haven't read it yet, and I doubt I ever will."

"But I submitted it six months ago! It can't be that bad!"

"It's not, it's not. But I'm out of this whole stale business now. I'm going to open a restaurant in Philadelphia. Chez Dozois."

"You're abandoning your whole career, a lifetime spent in the field? I can't believe what I'm hearing! Why not at least wait until retirement age? Why now?"

"I can't explain. It's just something in the air."

"I--I'd better leave now."

"One minute." The ex-editor reached into the drawer that had supplied the onion and took out a fluffy chef's toque. He donned it, smiled, and asked, "What do you think?"

"Beautiful. Now if I can have my story back, please--"

Storming out, I passed Stan Schmidt. The Burl-Ives-like editor of Analog was standing by the water cooler, strumming an acoustic guitar while the vivacious Sheila Williams sang a Peter, Paul and Mary song for an audience of coworkers.

Out on the sidewalk, the smell of onions from my briefcase made me start to salivate, and I zeroed in on a souvlaki vendor, resigned to forgoing my editor-sponsored lunch (unless of course I was content to wait for the imminent opening of Chez Dozois). Assembling my sandwich, the vendor caught a glimpse of my Nebula nominee lapel pin.

"Maybe you can help settle an argument 'tween me and the wife, buddy. Do androids and other human simulacra question the epistemological basis of reality, or are they just displaced ethnic stereotypes?"

I dropped the sandwich and fled.

My next appointment wasn't until two. I killed time on a bench in Washington Square. During that interval, I overhead average children, teens and adults discussing, among other topics, the practicality of governing interstellar empires, whether artificial intelligence would be achieved through top-down or bottom-up architecture, in what ways the term [sm caps]water margins[end sm caps] differed from [sm caps] borderlands[end sm caps], and whether the Wellsian dictum warning against "one oddness too many" in fantastic stories was still applicable in postmodern fabulations.

Dazed and bewildered, I staggered over to the Flatiron Building to meet with Gordon Van Gelder.

For one brief moment I could pretend that the strange mental virus "in the air" had failed to infect the youthful editor of F&SF, for he sat calmly, reading a magazine. But then I noticed that the stubble-cheeked boyish blue- penciller was examining not his usual copy of Publishers Weekly, but rather a glossy museum catalog. Spying me, he set the catalog aside and extended his hand.

"How are you doing?" Gordon graciously asked me.

"I've felt better. And you?"

"Just wonderful! I have a new job now. Director of the Curt Teich Postcard Archives out in Wauconda, Illinois. I curate my first show next month. You'll be getting an invitation of course."

I edged carefully toward the exit. "And my column?"

"Oh, naturally you'll have to take that up with the new editor, whoever that might be. There's a wealth of applicants---folks you've never heard of have come out of the woodwork---but Ed's too busy earning his Florida real- estate broker's license to interview them yet. However, if you can write entertainingly about postcards---"

I knocked down a Chinese restaurant delivery-boy in my haste to clear Gordon's offices. Helping the lad up, I was somehow not surprised to hear him exclaim, "TANSTAAFL!"

The downgoing elevator opened its doors to pick up passengers, and I was startled to spot Tom Doherty, Tor's own dapper publisher. Dressed as if he had stepped out of Tom Wolfe's sartorial dreams, the grinning Nebula Banquet sponsor wore a pair of binoculars around his neck.

"Can't talk now," Doherty blithely informed me. "I'm off to Saratoga for the opening day of Race Week. I've invested all of Tor's working capital in a stable of Kentucky thoroughbreds. Bye!"

In the Tor offices, pandemonium reined, as workers hurriedly cleaned their desks and conducted phone interviews with potential new employers. I stopped Patrick Nielsen Hayden and asked despondently if perhaps he planned on remaining behind to salvage this mess.

"Moi? Au contraire. Teresa and I have been tapped as hosts for a new network morning show. Regis and Kathie Lee, watch your ratings!"

My last hope was a certain silver-haired science-fictional patriarch. I stumbled into David Hartwell's office. He was busy on the phone, but waved me to a chair.

"What do you mean they can't get the fabric to us? Damn it, we placed the order weeks ago! Well, hold their feet to the fire on it!"

He slammed the phone down and turned to me. "Sorry about that. But my new line of Hawaiian shirts is slated to debut in Milan next week, and I need to make sure we can fill all the anticipated orders. As soon as the buzz starts in Women's Wear Daily, I'm outta this sinking ship!"

Well, I beat Hartwell out the Tor offices by a week or so. But unlike him, I had no destination other than a dark bar. After six drinks---and a desultory discussion with the bartender about first-contact protocols---that was where the ghost found me.

He looked a lot like Heinlein and a little like Asimov, but there were elements of Frank Herbert in the beard, and a little Simak around the eyes.

The wavery ghost said, "Don't worry, son. It's just our field's version of the Negroponte Flip."

"The what?"

"Nicholas Negroponte, bigwig at MIT. He noticed that media that were once delivered by wire had gone wireless, and vice versa. He called it the Negroponte Flip."

"And you're claiming---?"

"That all the common people, the mundanes---the mob who once knew nothing about science fiction---have become saturated with it, thanks to seventy years of exposure. Especially lately, with the new high profile of the field. The tropes are all in the air now. No one even has to read or watch the stuff anymore. It just drifts out of the noosphere straight into their heads."

"What about the professionals?"

"The high priests have burnt out. Their mental circuits are overexposed. They're the only ones in the world now who are immune to a sense of wonder."

"Well, at least we oldtimers will be famous and revered for our literary inventions."

"Not really. It's all too generic. Can you name the guy who invented the cinematic car chase?"

I pushed away woozily from the bar. "There's only one thing left for me to do then."

The ghost looked nervous. "You can't kill yourself over this."

"Who's going to kill himself? There's a Starbucks franchise for sale back home that I've had my eye on for some time now!"

To contact us, send an email to Fantasy & Science Fiction.
If you find any errors, typos or anything else worth mentioning, please send it to sitemaster@fandsf.com.

Copyright © 1998–2014 Fantasy & Science Fiction All Rights Reserved Worldwide

Hosted by:
SF Site spot art