The Rocket's Red Glare
IT'S December 2000 and England is cold, damp and miserable. Floods are slowly swallowing what's left of civilisation but we don't care. We're standing on the sand dunes at Cocoa Beach, Florida, surrounded by almost the entire membership of Smofcon, and all at once there's this incredible light in the sky and a thunderous roar from the Cape as the shuttle goes up at however many hundred miles an hour you care to think of. Suddenly, you can believe it only takes them a couple of minutes to be back over the UK when it's taken us 9 hours of flying to get away from there. It didn't even need the added assist of Erik Olson's solid fuel, salami-powered rocket boosters (take a salami, drill out the core, add a little liquid oxygen with some fast fuse, and Bob may well be your uncle but is more probably cowering in fear of providing source material for the Cocoa Beach Police Dept. weirdest corpse of the year award). It's over so quickly, but it's worth it for those few nostalgic minutes of feeling that you're back in the good old, long-forgotten days of the Space Age.
Smofcon is at the Holiday Inn, Cocoa Beach, which is not your average convention hotel. It's one of those "sign in at Reception then drive half a mile to your room" style of places. And our double room has a 3-bed kids' section with cartoon murals of tropical fish and telephones shaped like tree frogs. The hotel is more like a huge car-park with real palm trees, fake palm trees and a swimming pool half-full of a pirate ship. Oh, and tucked away at one end is the con suite. Allegedly, somewhere at the other end is the function space where the con is taking place but you're not interested in that, are you? The intricacies of Worldcon budgets are best left for another article, in another fanzine, far, far away.
Cocoa Beach is kind of weird. It's not just that it's America and therefore weird by definition. It's not just that this is the "Space Coast" where Fat Boys Barbecue restaurant is decorated with signed photos of astronauts I remember from childhood instead of long-forgotten sports heroes. And the armoured vans full of presidential election ballots racing up and down the roads. And of course there's the Christmas carols gaily going on about roasting chestnuts in front of an open fire and playing in the snow, while outside it's a baking hot Florida day with the sun glaring off the tinsel and melting the artificial snow. You think you've got a grip on the whole cultural dissonance problem and then you drive past Ron Jon's Surf Shop which is a huge, green and purple, 24-hour, neon-lit cathedral of surf; just the place to go if you have an uncontrollable urge to wax your surfboard at 3 am.
Then there's the wildlife. And no, I'm not talking about the Smofcon barbecue with its halftime entertainment of Worldcon bid presentations and hideously complex, eat by numbers, Australian ballot queuing system which still fails to avoid running out of spare ribs halfway through the process. Or, come to think of, the vast number of cats (by day) and racoons (by night) which infest the hotel. Actually, the racoons are kind of cute and more like an intelligent alien life form than anything else I've seen. We didn't see any alligators, but we did see lots of dolphins, pelicans and rednecks. And gun nuts convinced that their personal stocks of automatic, nuclear and biological weapons are the only reason why America is such a quiet, peaceful, law-abiding place in a world full of unrestrained violence. And that the UK suffers in hideous poverty on account of being ground underfoot by the terrible cost of supporting the Royal Family. And that America is a democracy and other peculiar delusions.
But it's worth it, somehow. Back at the con suite, Geri Sullivan is demonstrating how to turn several packets of cornstarch into oobleck, the nearest thing imaginable to green kryptonite, by simply adding water and a mad cackle of glee. And Melanie and Judy are feeding the assembled masses on an infinite quantity of rock shrimp. Suddenly, I experience this moment of divine enlightenment in which I finally understand just why American conventions have con suites. I've never had enough shrimp before. In fact, I didn't believe there was enough shrimp. And key lime pie which, as prepared by Naomi Fisher, is revealed as the closest thing you can get to the perfect dessert without adding ice-cream. And we manage to buy loads of cool Christmas presents in the nearly-infinitely long malls which carpet every other inch of Central Florida, even if we do manage to restrain ourselves from buying either a T-Rex footprint or a gargoyle from the gargoyle shop on IDreamOfJeannie Avenue. Or this stunning piece of stained glass from a gallery in Cocoa Village which would have been expensive just to buy, without even considering the cost of shipping it back home.
Eventually, it all comes to an end and we stand on the beach, toes in the sand, basking in the sunlight and staring out to sea while Giulia tries to suppress her horror at the concept of a beach with tar on it. Next year maybe we'll try Southend.