Another person we seemed to run
across frequently at Confiction was Bob Shaw. Dick had brought a book by Bob with
him to Confiction in hopes of getting it signed, but it always seemed to work out that
whenever he ran into Bob, the book was back in the hotel room, and whenever he had the
book, Bob was nowhere to be found. Bob later said that this was a demonstration of
that heretofore little-known Law of the Universe, the Shaw Exclusion Principle -- when
a fan wants a book autographed, it is impossible for the book and the author to be in
the same place at the same time. There were a few other little-known Scientific
Principles brought to light by Bob at Confiction, in his latest Serious Scientific
You should know that I do not delude myself about why my Serious Scientific Talks have become so popular. Even though I have extended the frontiers of scientific knowledge in many directions... some of these directions quite unexpected... some of them very unexpected...
There was, for example, my defence of the idea that the Loch Ness monster really exists. Loch Ness is very long, but it is also very narrow, which means that it does not contain a huge amount of water and biological resources. Some so-called experts, intent on proving there can be no monsters, have done field surveys in the Loch, have estimated the number of fish present... and have announced that no monsters can exist... because there aren't enough fish in the Loch for them to feed on.
The fools! The incompetent bumblers! What they failed to realize was that they were counting the number of fish left after the monsters had eaten their fill!
This shows you the dangers of trying to apply scientific methods when one has not had the necessary rigorous training in logic. I have had that kind of training, which is what enabled me to invent -- among many other ingenious gadgets -- a device which I have called the truth machine.
You have all heard of the ordinary lie detector. Its operating principle is that when a person tells a lie he begins to perspire... thus increasing the electrical conductivity of his skin... and the effect can be measured. My invention, like most great scientific advances, was devastatingly simple. As I have said before, it was not a huge IQ which made Einstein a great scientist... it was his simple and childlike approach to problems... and, for all I know, my mind might be even more simple and childlike than Einstein's!
Anyway, to create my truth machine, all I did was stand the principle of the lie detector on its head. If it is impossible to tell a lie without sweating, it stands to reason that if one cannot sweat it is impossible to tell a lie! My truth machine simply squirts a highly effective anti-perspirant all over the subject... thus depriving him of the ability to be untruthful!
All that apart, as I was saying, I am fully aware that -- as well as seeking scientific enlightenment -- people come to my talks because I throw in the occasional little joke. Actually, there has been some dispute over that point. A few years ago I did one of the talks at a convention in upstate New York. It was very well received... people laughing all the way through... most gratifying... But a man came to me as soon as it was over, looking highly annoyed, and said, "I was listening to your talk very carefully and realized you were cheating. Most of the things you said up there weren't funny at all -- you only made people think they were funny!"
I think there's a neat philosophical point there. He either insulted me, or paid me a great compliment -- but I have never figured out which.
Anyway, I was talking about the jokes. This may come as a big surprise to everybody here. It may come as a terrible shock. In fact, most of you may be outraged on my behalf -- but the sad fact is that there are some people in the science fiction world who are going around saying that I use the same jokes over and over again!
The injustice of that lie is made all the more poignant because I am constitutionally incapable of repeating my own jokes. For example: when I go on a trip and am sending postcards back to a dozen or so friends -- yes, I do have that many -- I always like to put one of my little witticisms on each card. Now, these people aren't going to compare notes. There is no reason at all why I shouldn't put the same joke on each card -- but somehow I just can't bring myself to do that. Each one has to have a different joke, and that can lead to problems, because the brain is not always functioning at its best after a breakfast of half-a-dozen Guinness Sunrises. Once, many years ago, I had written practically my whole batch of cards when I remembered I hadn't sent one to my long-time and very dear friends -- Walt and Madeleine Willis.
I had just about exhausted the joke-making centers of my brain, but -- after a moment's thought -- I wrote on the card: "The crisis is over -- please ignore my telegram." And I mailed it off. Well, I thought it was funny. Looking back, I can't quite say why I thought it was funny. When I got back home to Belfast I discovered that Walt and Madeleine also hadn't appreciated the subtle undertones of wry satire, the Kafkaesque surrealism, the Brechtian irony, and the Leacockian sense of the ridiculous.
Perhaps I was being over optimistic in trying to cram that much into eight words. Anyway, Walt and Madeleine has wasted some of their times -- and a lot of other people's time -- giving the Post Office hell over the non-delivery of my nonexistent telegram. When I explained the joke to Walt, he -- in spite of his superb sense of humour -- did not seem quite as much amused as he might have been.
One aspect of humour on which we were always in harmony, though, was our appreciation of the Canadian humourist I mentioned a moment ago, Stephen Leacock, who sadly is now almost forgotten. Leacock is probably more famous for the immortal line the a satire on Victorian melodramas: "Lord Ronald flung himself upon his horse and rode off madly off in all directions." But my favourite was a piece he did about the world's greatest international smuggler -- who owed most of his success to the fact that he only smuggled stuff upon which there was no duty!
"The authorities," Leacock wrote, "are helpless against a criminal mastermind like that!"
What was I talking about? Oh, yes! Some malicious people are going around saying that I keep repeating my old jokes. Do not believe them! Only if somebody put me in a torture chamber and threatened to apply red hot irons to my feet would I agree to go back over some of my material. I might, for instance, hark back to a couple of favourite puns that I used on my fellow scientist -- Von Donegan.
There was the time he and I were climbing a mountain in Pakistan, and he was proud of being able to address the bearers in their native language, and he said to me, "What do you think of my Urdu?" and I replied, "Very nice -- I think that style suits you." Or the time he was wondering how he could obtain a couple of those big knives for slashing through jungle, and I said, "I've got a catalogue of them -- I keep it on a shelf in the kitchen beside all my other kukri books."
But, as I said, I'm not going to repeat any jokes. What I'm going to do instead is to tackle one of the major economic problems facing the world today -- i.e., the great cost of traveling to science fiction conventions.
A couple of months ago I was sitting quietly in my office-cum-laboratory, writing an article for the Scientific American about my new navigational system for the ordinary motorist, which enables him to find out where he is with pinpoint accuracy, day or night. In fact, it seems to work better at night. I think all motorists have been in the same terrible situation... you are heading for some destination out in the country... you make a wrong turn... suddenly it is past midnight... perhaps two or three in the morning... you have no idea where you are... the narrow road stretches ahead into infinite darkness... there is no glimmer of light to indicate a dwelling where you might obtain information... ghouls might be abroad... werewolves might be abroad... little men from flying saucers might be abroad... and -- worse still! -- Whitley Streiber might be aboard!
One wrong move and you could be sued!
I know what you are thinking at this stage! You are thinking that with Shaw's new system you simply call up a satellite in the Clarke orbit and it indicates your position on an electronic map. That is a very good system, but it has a major drawback in that it costs a lot of money. By contrast, my system costs nothing at all!
All you have to do in this situation... where you are stuck out in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night... and you desperately need guidance... and there is nobody within a hundred miles to help... well, nobody but Whitley Streiber, that is... and he isn't going to be much help... and you think you may never make contact with humanity again...
All you have to do is say to yourself, "Okay, it looks like I'm going in the wrong direction -- SO I WILL DO A THREE-POINT TURN!"
As soon as you swing your car into a position... in the middle of the night... in which it blocks this minor country road... which was last travelled by Joseph of Arimathrea... and you are in the act of performing a perfectly legitimate three-point turn... the whole place will fill up with angry, impatient, local motorists who hate you for increasing their journey time by three seconds...
And all you have to do is ask them for directions!
I have high hopes that this new invention of mine will make my name a household word. One of the things which inspires that ambition is that I had an uncle whose name became a household word. His name was Jimmy Dishwasher.
Anyway, there I was sitting quietly in my office, when suddenly there was a tap at my door. I stared at it for a moment, and thought "That's funny -- there was no tap there a minute ago." There came the sound of somebody pushing forcibly at the door, and it swung open to reveal none other than Von Donegan!
"There's a tap on your door," he said, breathing heavily. "If it hadn't been there I mightn't have been able to get a good enough grip to open the door."
"Do you mean," I said, "That you had to faucet open?"
A stricken look appeared on Von Donegan's face. "Not the plumbing puns," he pleaded. He immediately brought up a chair... which surprised me a little... because I hadn't even realized he had swallowed one. "I'm here on serious business, Shaw. It has recently come to my attention that crossing from Britain to continental Europe is one of the shortest but most expensive journeys in the world. The Worldcon in The Hague will be coming up soon, and I regard it as my sacred duty to support the con by finding a way to enable fans from this country to cross the Channel with the least possible expense."
"A noble sentiment," I said. "You know, of course, that a man called Webb once crossed the Channel for absolutely nothing?"
Von Donegan nodded. "You're talking about the first Channel swimmer -- Captain Webb."
I shook my head. "No, I'm talking about Gerry Webb, the well-known British SF fan and expert on astronautics. He got himself fired across to Europe on a rocket which went right outside the Earth's atmosphere."
Von Donegan looked impressed. "Did he have any reentry problems?"
"Yes," I said. "The authorities won't let him back into England."
"That's not what I meant," Von Donegan snapped. "It's obvious to me that you don't know the first thing about the exploration of space."
"I beg your pardon," I said huffily. "Only this morning I received a telegram direct from NASA headquarters -- saying that the latest Mars lander has found definite proof of the existence of Ray Bradbury."
Von Donegan threw up his hands... which surprised me a little... because I hadn't even realized that he had swallowed them. Somebody in the audience has just accused me of using one of my old jokes! All right, it may seem that I used one of my old jokes, but the difference is that, this time, it wasn't a joke. Von Donegan has a habit of gnawing at his fingernails when he is agitated. On this occasion he gnawed and sucked so hard that he actually did swallow his hands!
There he was...sitting there...with both forearms terminating at his mouth.. not a pretty sight... and only his violent reaction to my words enabled him to puke his hands back up again. That wasn't a pretty sight either. He had had spaghetti hoops for lunch... and there they were... neatly fitted onto his fingers!
"Thank you, Bob," Von Donegan said. He nibbled experimentally at a couple of the spaghetti hoops, and said, "Hey! These are even better second time around! Do you want to try a few?"
"Thank you -- but no," I said. "I don't like tomato sauce."
How, you must be wondering, does a sensitive and subtle SF writer, such as me, survive such experiences without his thought processes becoming coarsened and degraded? It's a mystery to me, as well. I guess my mind must be essentially pure and ethereal...
"Let's get down to serious business," Von Donegan said. "I have invented no less than three completely separate ways of getting British fans across to Europe without them having to pay exorbitant prices. And each will be a lot safer than that outfit I used to fly with -- Celebrity Airlines."
"Why were they called Celebrity Airlines?" I said.
"Because of all the celebrities they had flown."
"Name a few."
"Well," Von Donegan said, "there was Glenn Miller... Buddy Holly... Jim Reeves..."
Actually, you shouldn't make jokes about disasters, thought I must say I was recently forced to do it in self defence. Earlier in the year I was on a convention panel with Larry Niven... and we were asked about the state of modern SF... and Larry said, "Modern SF must be doing very well -- because I'm making shiploads of money."
Not to be outdone, I said, "I also am making shiploads of money. And I will tell you the names of some of the ships! The Titanic... the Lusitania... the Amoco Cadiz... the Mary Celeste..."
Anyway, seeing that Von Donegan was serious, I invited him to sit down and talk. He nodded and brought up a chair... which surprised me a little... because I hadn't even realized he'd swallowed one.
No! That isn't one of my old jokes, either. As it transpired, Von Donegan actually had eaten a chair! It turned out that he had been having intestinal problems, and his doctor had advised him... each time he went to the toilet... to examine his stools.
"Stools?" Von Donegan said. (His grip of English is not as good as mine.)
"Yes," the doctor said, "the remnants of what you ate on the previous day. Stools!"
Von Donegan wasn't able to find any stools, so he had eaten a chair. It's all perfectly logical, you see. I confess that I had hoped, at this stage, to concoct a few puns about the best kinds of chair to eat... but I had very little success... "Dining chairs" is too obvious and easy. I invite all here to make suggestions which I can use in future presentations of this talk, and the winner will receive a free seat on the first commercial flight to Mars... or a copy of Last Dangerous Visions... whichever comes first...
"Okay," I said to Von Donegan, "tell me all your ways of getting fans across to Europe with minimum expense."
"Better than that," he replied, "I'll demonstrate them for you. Come to my secret laboratory in Eton this evening at eight." With those words he sprang to his feet... which surprised me a little... because I hadn't noticed his feet sneaking away by themselves. He expertly reattached his feet to his shin bones... he's a man of many parts... and left my office.
That evening I drove to Eton. I was quickly able to locate Von Donegan's secret laboratory because it has a huge neon sign which said: VON DONEGAN'S SECRET LABORATORY. As I walked up to the sinister-looking edifice there was a thick greasy fog pressing against the windows. That made me feel rather uneasy -- because it was a fine and clear evening outside the building. I knocked on the door, gently at first, but when there was no reply I gave the door several pounds. It slipped the pounds into its wallet and obligingly swung open.
I went inside, into a large workshop, and found Von Donegan working on a car.
"I've been modifying this car," he said. "And now it's just like the one on Back to the Future."
"But the one in the movie was a DeLorean," I said. "This is a Robin Reliant."
"It was all I could afford," he muttered. "I still haven't received my cheque for coming in third in the Interzone prize crossword. The point is that in this vehicle we are free to roam in time and space... and anywhere else we want to go... Hop in and I'll show you!"
I got into the car with Von Donegan and saw at once that he had an extra panel on the dashboard, a panel made of the timer controls he had stolen from my video recorder a couple of years earlier. On that occasion he had used them in a time machine, which had behaved very erratically. I felt uneasy, and said so.
"Relax," he said. "Just sit back and enjoy the sensations." Automatic doors slid open ahead of us, the car's engine roared, we moved forward and in a few minutes had built up to a speed of about 20mph.
"This is all very exciting," I said, "but what is it all about?"
"Haven't you noticed we're headed due east, toward the Essex coast?" Von Donegan replied. "I'm going to drive you straight to Holland!"
"Unless this car is amphibious," I smirked, "you're going to have trouble with the North Sea."
Von Donegan chortled and shook his head. "That's where you're wrong. Just before we reach the Essex coast I will operate the Temporal Displacement Unit in this car -- the time machine, in other words. We will be transported a million or so years back into the past... to a time when Britain was still connected to continental Europe. All we will have to do then is keep driving for an hour or so... switch off the Temporal Displacement Unit... and -- bingo! -- we'll be in present-day Holland!"
I have to admit I was impressed. I knew that in the past old Von Donegan had put up a few schemes which were quite impracticable. There was, for instance, his plan to surface all the roads in the country with a compound of Alka-Seltzers and Andrew's Liver Salts... so that we could all travel about in little hovercraft powered by nothing more than internal water sprays.
There was also his plan for the salt-powered sled. It involved using massive refrigeration plants to freeze solid all the canals in the country. Von Donegan's idea was that each sled should have a big salt shaker mounted on the front end... when the driver pressed the accelerator some salt would be sprinkled on the ice directly in front of the sled... some of the ice would then melt... the sled would slide forwards into it and the whole process would be repeated over and over again.
It took a cool analytical mind such as mine to point out the basic flaw in the scheme -- that a sled wouldn't be able to carry enough salt to travel any distance.
But this new idea of Von Donegan's was eminently sensible! I looked forward to seeing it in action. It was getting dark by the time we neared the coast. The lower reaches of the North Sea glimmered ahead of us... Von Donegan fingered the time machine controls... and suddenly it was broad daylight!
We had shot back a million years... give or take a few hours... and ahead of us lay a verdant plain stretching all the way to the Continent. Using this system, science fiction fans from all over Britain would be able to drive, cycle or even walk to The Hague... with virtually no expense!
The only problem, however, was that the flat land ahead of us was swarming with dinosaurs! There were millions of them -- presenting a completely impassable barrier. There they were... the Stegosaurus... the Triceratops... the Tyrannosaurus Rex... every prehistoric name I could have dug out of the Children's Britannica if I had had more time to prepare this talk...
"This is terrible," Von Donegan quavered, slamming on the brakes. "There are types here I've never even heard of. What is that monster called?" he said as a huge beast with only one rather myopic-looking eye reared up ahead.
"It's a Do-you-think-he-saurus," I quipped maliciously, realising that yet another of Von Donegan's schemes had come to naught.
"You're enjoying this," he accused. "Next thing you'll be coming out with the old Jim White pun about the Yorkshire dinosaur -- the Emily Brontosaurus."
"I'd never sink so low," I assured him, "but I will say that you should have expected all these prehistoric monsters when you set out from Eton and travelled directly towards the Continent."
"What do you mean?"
"You must have read the Harry Harrison book -- East of Eton."
Von Donegan gave a cry of anguish, turned the car around and drove back to safety, meanwhile operating the controls which brought us back into our own time, It will give you some idea of how much peril we had felt ourselves to be in when I tell you that we were relieved to find ourselves on the M25!
When we eventually got back to Von Donegan's secret laboratory we were in need of a drink. He set out a couple of glasses, produced a large whisky bottle and poured me out two fingers. I complained about them... sticking out of the glass like that... with the nails not even properly manicured... so he fished them out and dropped them into a bowl he kept nearby... I'm not even going to say that one.)
"I guess I'll have to forget about the land bridge method of getting to Holland," Von Donegan said. "While we're sitting here I'll check up on the progress of my second method -- the one I'm handling by remote control because it's slightly dangerous."
"What method is that?"
"The black hole method," Von Donegan said. “You know... like in 2001... where you dive into a black hole and emerge somewhere else in the universe. I created a very small black hole by compressing some material which was already very dense..."
"You mean," I interrupted, "something like lead?"
"No, I mean Ken Slater's and Rog Peyton's catalogues. There are so many words squeezed on to each page that, because of the mass of the ink, each one is like a little neutron star. It didn't take too many of them to make a black hole, so I produced one on the cliffs of Dover. If everything has gone well, fans heading for the convention in The Hague will only have to drive straight at it. They will disappear and rematerialise in normal space just outside the Bel Air Hotel... if that can be considered as normal space..."
Von Donegan went to a computer terminal, did a lot of key tapping, then looked at me in utter panic.
"Bob," he said, "I'm in deep trouble! My black hole has rolled over the edge of the cliffs of Dover and has come to rest a few miles out in the English channel!"
"Don't worry about it," I said. "Nobody will notice."
"They're bound to," he replied. "It has stopped right beside the Channel Tunnel diggings... the British and French halves are warped into a circle around it... the whole project is now locked on the event horizon... which means that no progress will ever be made with the tunnel... it will never be finished..."
"Is that supposed to be news?" I quipped.
"I'll just have to fall back on my third method," Von Donegan said gloomily. He did some more key tapping, then went to a cupboard and brought out some cans of beer and glasses, to complement our whisky. We drank in silence for a while, then I became impatient and asked him what his third method for crossing to Holland actually was.
"I have to admit, I borrowed the idea from one your books," he said. "Do you remember the bit in Ship of Strangers where the ship is translated into a different dimension? The ship itself becomes as big as the universe and when the crew are sitting in the control room they can see galaxies all around them in the room, little drifting motes of light..."
"Of course I remember that bit," I said. "It has been described by perceptive reviewers a one of the truly great scenes in modern SF. One of them quoted part of it. 'A continuous rain of galaxies was spraying up through the floor, passing through the table and chairs and human beings, and out through the ceiling into the vessel's upper levels. The galaxies looked like slightly fuzzy stars to the naked eye, but when examined with a magnifying glass they were seen to be perfect little lens-shapes or spirals, miniature jewels being squandered into space by an inane creator'."
"That's great stuff," I went on. "And the book -- Ship of Strangers -- available from all leading book sellers..."
"Never mind the commercial," Von Donegan snarled. "What I'm trying to tell you is that I borrowed the idea and used it as a means of getting science fiction fans across the sea to The Hague. I built a dimensional diffuser... which can expand the fans to thousands of times their natural size..."
"Some of them have learned to do that already -- by consuming great quantities of beer and beefburgers."
"Stop trying to be funny," Von Donegan said, his eyebrows knitting so furiously that a little pullover fell down over his nose. "This is very serious. My plan is to use the dimensional diffuser to turn worldcon attendees into giants who will be able to cross the channel in just a few strides. As soon as they are over there I will switch the machine off and they will return to their original size. Ingenious, isn't it?"
"No," I said. "I can't believe such a system could ever come into existence."
"That's where you're wrong," he exclaimed, "because I have already switched the machine on! At this very moment you and I are vast diffused beings. Just look at you!"
I looked around me and, sure enough, I was able to see -- mingled with the squalid furnishings of Von Donegan's room -- ghostly representation of the whole of the south of England. The surface of his table roughly corresponded to the general lie of the country.
"This is terrible," I said. "Because of what you are doing, great forces are being brought to bear on our countryside! Even our whisky glasses and beer glasses -- which to us merely seem to be sitting on this table -- will make their impression on the landscape."
"There is no need to worry about that," Von Donegan said. "I only set them down in rural areas -- where nobody will ever notice the appearance of a few large circles flattened into the cornfields."
"You fool," I said. "What do you mean nobody will notice? Those corn circles are the talk of the land, of the world! Every science journal and newspaper you pick up has articles about them. Some journalists are making a fortune out of this thing!"
"What?" Von Donegan croaked. "You mean people are making money out of my invention! And I'm not in on it! Get out of here, Shaw -- I've got some writing to do."
"But what about your mission to get fans to the Worldcon cheaply?"
"Stuff the fans," he snarled. "Science is more important." He went to his word processor and hunched over it. "I've got a floppy disk somewhere."
"I can tell that by the way you're hunched over your word processor," I said. "I've had back trouble myself."
He screamed for me to get out of his laboratory, so I left without further ado and came straight here to The Hague -- even though it was an expensive trip. Now, I'm wondering if I could invent a cheap way of getting here. Some method that involves drinking a lot of beer. A belch powered sailing ship, perhaps... No, that sounds to much like something I've already done -- my beer-powered space ship. I can't allow beer to make me repeat...
Title illustration by Kip Williams
Other illustrations by Joe Mayhew and Kip Williams