A complete short story by Nalini Haynes
A colourful throng chattering like tropical parakeets filled the plush hotel lobby on the first day of the convention. Floor-to-ceiling mirrors on every wall exponentially expanded the size of the crowd. People were checking in, exploring their show bags and meeting their friends.
Standing alone, I caught sight of myself in a mirror through a brief gap in the throng. I was a bit shorter than average with sandy-blonde hair over light-blue tee shirt and jeans. I was washed out. Ghostly. Out of time. Or out of place.
I sighed and returned my gaze to the program guide. Flipping through the program, I saw the panels consisted of the usual sugarcoated fare. The genre was capsizing, political correctness to appease the masses rolling the agenda to port. Meanwhile, I stood on the brink of extinction: my farm was under threat from multinationals. And if I lost the farm, I’d end up unemployed because immigrants and women were taking our jobs. I needed a port. Any port in a storm.
“Hey, Eccles!” said a tall dark-haired guy in jeans and a Star Wars tee shirt with @farmboy on his nametag. “Whotcha doing?”
“I’m wondering why I’m here, Ben,” I said. “The panels are all ‘feminist’ this and ‘Women Destroy Science Fiction’ that but where are the panels for us?”
“In the bar, mate, in the bar. Come on.”
Several hours later, Ben and I lurched out of the convention bar to find our room. The wall mirrors and labyrinthine corridors turned us around until we became hopelessly lost. As a matter of last resort and only because I absolutely had to take a piss, I asked a guy in uniform for directions.
It was too bright when I woke. I pulled the quilt over my head and groaned.
Ben said, “Time for breakfast,” in a cheerful shouty voice. His towel was wrapped around his hips. He was dry apart from damp hair as he rummaged through his suitcase.
I groaned and emerged from my cocoon to shower.
In the hotel restaurant a sparse group gathered around the breakfast buffet. As I helped myself to eggs, ham, bacon, toast and all the extras, I asked, “Where is everyone? All sleeping it off?”
“This is about normal, a third of the members show for breakfast,” replied a diminutive man hunched over his walking stick.
“A third? But there are at least 5000 members—”
“You mean 500 members, sonny.”
This guy was clearly suffering from Alzheimer’s or something.
“Plus the women, there must be at least 50 women at this convention. None of them are members, of course, but they help run things, working behind the scenes,” another member said, pushing his glasses up his nose. “They don’t come to breakfast, they’re too busy setting up.”
“Here we go again,” said stick-man, rolling his head with his eyes. “Jim. If you don’t want your wife to support the convention then don’t bring her at all.”
“That’s not—” Jim sighed, shook his head and took his plate to a long table with several empty spaces next to a small cluster of men.
Ben and I loaded our plates and looked for a place to sit within the convention seating limited by stanchions.
Jim looked over, waved and called, “Come and sit with us.”
I sat down and started inhaling my breakfast. Grease food is man’s best cure for a hangover.
Just as Jim began introductions to the rest of the group, he was interrupted.
“Whadda you want? We’re eating,” replied John, a small man with dark receding hair balanced by incoming facial hair. While he was eating, his hand movements—even when his fork was armed with food—were expansive. He seemed to have drunk way too much coffee.
The interloper was pretty ordinary—brown hair and brown eyes—except for the intensity of his gaze. “There’s a panel today about allowing women to take up the role of editors in some SF publishing companies. As you know, we have too many authors and not enough editors in the genre—”
Wait. Everyone here was male. And white. WTF? Was I in the right place? I paused with my fork halfway to my mouth as I listened.
“Look. Teddy. I know you’re the president of SFWA but, really? This is breakfast. If you want Toni to become a SFWA-authorised editor, lobby on your own time.”
Teddy looked around the gathered men while avoiding John’s glare. “At least come to the panel discussion. The genre needs more editors. And there’s another panel where a Machete Publishing rep and a few others will discuss increasing genre sales by catering to women readers. We’ll be discussing Heinlein’s Friday—”
John wiped his mouth and threw his napkin on his empty plate. “I’ve heard enough. For your information Teddy, I‘m published with Machete. And I‘m happy with my editor, thanks.” John pushed his chair back, chalk-on-a-blackboard scraping it across the tiled floor.
Ben leaned in and said in a low voice “WTF?”
I looked down at my forkful of food and continued eating.
“It’s underdog syndrome,” said a man in an ancient tweed jacket sitting on the edge of the group.
Most of the group rose and followed John but tweed-jacket stayed behind. He patted his pockets and pulled out a cigarette packet. “Come out on the balcony with me? I need a fag.”
Our breaths misted in the chill air as we perched on hard chairs in the gloomy morning. Militant high-rise buildings blocked the sun.
Tweedy lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply. “If John was president of SFWA, Teddy would be revolting. Teddy is president so John is rebelling. Teddy and John enjoy sniping at each other over the interwebs. It’s got so they can’t leave their squabbles at the convention door.” He paused to suck on his cigarette. “Anyone’d think they were politicians.”
My gaze roamed up the street. A shop up the road was boarded up. Newspapers blew down the street. This suburb didn’t look as affluent as when I arrived. A group of people clustered on the sidewalk, growing in number as we drank our coffee.
“What are they doing?” I asked. They looked like people from the foyer yesterday but they carried signs saying “Bring back Baen Books” and “Sexist SF Sucks”. Early arrivals were sitting in deckchairs.
“Them? They’re the wannabes. If we let women in, next it’ll be coloureds. And those others—” Tweedy paused, inhaling sharply as he sat back in his seat. “You two. Rumour has it that you’re sharing a room?”
“Yeah,” said Ben.
“Hmm,” said Tweedy. “You’re not—do you live together? Share a house? Keep a toy dog?” He looked at Ben and I through narrowed eyes.
Rising to my feet, I excused myself. “Come on, Ben.” I grabbed his arm and dragged him out of the restaurant. After a wrong turn I found the smallest convention dealers’ hall ever, with the saddest collection of books. I backed out, turned, and spied the labyrinth entrance. Dragging Ben through the corridors, I searched for the road less travelled.