Thank you for inviting me.
The late Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., said he first learned he was a science fiction writer in the 1950s when he read reviews of his his first novel, and discovered that critics had placed him in a file drawer labelled, "Science Fiction." He said that he spent the next part of his career trying to get out of that particular drawer, because so many critics mistook it for a urinal.
Fast-forward to 1980, and things looked a little different. The first Star Wars had become a bona fide cultural phenomenon, and its first sequel—-and Yoda—-were on the big screen (or, on the big screen they were) for the first time. Gene Wolfe published the first Book of the New Sun, Octavia Butler was continuing to break new ground, and Kurt Vonnegut was now an acclaimed American author. Douglas Adams's novel adaptation of his hit radio series continued with The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, while a TV adaptation was in the works that would boast production values and effects not seen at the BBC since the previous week's episode of Doctor Who, starring Tom Baker. And, speaking of making the most of space on a limited budget, Star Trek, which, famously or infamously, had only lasted three seasons during the 1960s, had persevered in reruns, spawned books, comics, breakfast cereal, and a cartoon series, and was just then finding new life as a motion picture franchise.
And your club was founded, initially as a Star Trek club. I think this is perfect because, while SF obviously predates Star Trek and includes some truly lasting works of literature and art, I know I'm not alone in having discovered SF largely because of Star Trek. It opened worlds for me as I'm sure it did for many of you. It told us the stars were our destination, the future would be worth inhabiting, and we should go into it. Boldly.
You'll hear a lot more about that ground-breaking series shortly, but for now, I'd like to raise a toast to forty years of Science Fiction in the Forest City!
A tale, then, of two gatherings.
The local science fiction club celebrated its fortieth anniversary. A group of high school students formed it back in 1980, and it continues, in one form or another, to this day. They meet monthly in a room at the public library. I have attended once, though I know some of the members who crowded the sparse room, from conventions and other events and because we live in the same city. I was invited to give the greeting/toast at the start of the celebratory meeting. We then segued to the serious guest speakers.
The first speaker focused on Star Trek, its legacy, and its values. I think most of the crowd had heard these things before, but he spoke intelligently and from a personal perspective that invited reflection on the deeper aspects of pop culture.
They stopped after his talk to cut the cake. We ate and drank and took chips and cookies from communal plate and bowl. Their snacks, I think, have remained a constant over forty years.
The world outside marked 100 000 documented cases of COVID-19. British Columbia, the Canadian province most affected at that point in time, reported six new cases.
The second speaker, a professor of media/pop culture studies, filled the role of obligatory controversial speaker. He made some astute points about the decline of belief in the essential and frequently positive values that Star Trek embodied (or attempted to) in its earliest incarnation. He spewed venom on Star Trek: Discovery, and I would have to say many people in the room-- especially those who had only watched the first, troubled season-- concurred. Others gave some pushback to his more inflammatory points, though time for discussion was limited. It's probably unfair to say that he rates contemporary SF on whether or not Straight White Men get presented as heroes and teh Social Justice Warriors haven't ruined it, but that's sort of how a parody of him would sound. He was more thoughtful than that, I grant, though he did unironically use "Social Justice Warriors" as a pejorative. It would have been very interesting to hear how the presentation would have gone over at a contemporary SF convention.
The final presenter, an original member, gave a free-form discussion/reminiscence of the club's history going back to 1980, heavily guided by questions. It was more interesting to the club members, obviously, but it was their party, and I'm always interested in the history of things.
People mingled and talked as the designated time in the room came to an end. A woman who featured in some of the final presenter's anecdotes asked me about my forthcoming book, and invited me to join the group for dinner afterwards.
"I'd like to go," I said. "But I have back-to-back events today. And, no, my weekends are never this busy unless I'm at a Con." I'm booked at two this spring, with panels and presentations.
They probably won't happen, but no one was speaking of that, even on March 7.
"So you don't normally dress like this?" she asked. I was wearing a three-piece pinstripe-- classic enough to pass, but evocative of another era.
"No." The second event was a birthday party, a fifteen minute walk from the library. It was a surprise to the Guest of Honour, and we had to be there for five o'clock. The party had a loose Roaring Twenties theme, though period dress was optional. My wife found the suit, decades old but barely worn, at the crowded, crazy charity rummage sale she volunteers at every year. We had it tailored to fit just in time. It went well with her flapperesque dress.
The crowded, crazy charity rummage sale? I imagine that's off for 2020.
"Oh," the woman said, an affected, upper class, faux British oh. "You're going to..." She repeated the name of the elite local club.
"We're not members," I said. The Guest of Honour is a friend of my wife's. Her husband is a local entrepreneur. He's affable and pleasant. We have been to the club once before, also as their guests. When we reciprocated, and had them over for barbecue salmon, he brought home-baked biscuits.
I walked to the Queen Anne style building, an exterior unchanged since the 1870s. The weather had taken a spring turn, and remained mild. My wife arrived some time later, by car.
The group that congregated on the upper level of the club, booked for this event, covered a broad range, from those of modest means to the person I overheard discussing polo. I suppressed a smile; no self-respecting writer would have penned that moment. We ended up sitting beside one of the other couples who dressed for the 1920s, octogenarians of considerable note, locally. I smiled when I realized who they were. Having heard they would be there, I'd practised pronouncing their surname. The local media has been inconsistent on this point.
You know the joke: How do you determine your social class?
If your name is on a tag on your shirt, you're working class.
If your name is on your desk, you're middle class.
If your name is on the building...
Their name is on a couple of buildings. But he grew up on a farm, he told me, as we talked over drinks. He claimed he always maintained the frugality of a farmer. I hadn't asked him how he became so successful in business. I suspect he just gets some of that out of the way, because I imagine he's been asked that question quite a bit. The rest of the conversation diverged onto other matters. He is a reader (though not of science fiction), and their generous support of live theatre and the arts is well-known.
His wife dressed as a flapper, a style only a couple decades old when they were born.
They seemed like nice people. I imagine they're staying inside now.
We toasted the Guest of Honour.
She and my wife made lunch plans for the following week. People were still doing that, planning to meet in restaurants.
I reflected on the beguiling shift of cultural contexts, the club and the Club, as we headed down the stairs and down the street to where she had parked the car, curbside. Those spots are free in the evening and on weekends. The temperature had dropped, but the weather still promised spring.
The World Health Organization issued a statement on COVID-19. "Every country," it said, "should urgently take all necessary measures to slow further spread and to protect health systems from becoming overwhelmed with patients."
So it goes.