Big Head Press

L. Neil Smith's
Number 634, August 28, 2011

"Casinos are like a neon-decorated IRS"

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The Past That Never Was—
The Future That Will Never Be

by by L. Neil Smith

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Attribute to L. Neil Smith's The Libertarian Enterprise

I have just (more or less) returned from "Renovation", the 69th annual World Science Fiction Convention, and it isn't my arms that are tired.

It's long 1000 miles from Fort Collins, Colorado, where I live, to Reno, Nevada, where they held the convention, and a longer 1000 back, through some of the most crushingly beautiful and desolate country in America. Our route, I-80, took us around the Great Salt Lake, as alien a location as I have ever seen, and across the Bonneville Salt Flats pictured in so many auto ads, but which you still have to see to believe.

But no phenomenon of nature could possibly be as strange as the alternative reality one encounters entering Wendover, Nevada. In that physical regime, hotels and restaurants are connected to—and often concentric with—caverns with mirrored ceilings, walls, and columns, making it difficult to find your way across the room. Serried ranks of electronic slot machines are clung to by half-starved-looking wights—the cigarettes in their hands nothing but long cylinders of gray ash—worshipping runes that appear when they insert a coin and watch the lights and listen to musical notes that would make a Pac-Man fan start screaming, tearing his hair, and running for the roof with a rifle.

To be sure, there are other kinds of gambling going on. I saw a poker room, roulette wheels, and a genuine James Bond baccarat table. But they were truly lost in a great labyrinth of electronic slots. I was surprised not to see slot machines on a free wall of the men's room.

I'd seen all of this before, mind you. I was in Las Vegas last year, and it was my second time. I first saw it only a couple of years after Bugsy Siegal did. And I gotta confess to youse guys, I just don' geddit.

What I mean is, there are a number of points of view that various human beings have, which I am forced to accept purely intellectually. I know there are men who find other men sexually attractive, but I don't really understand it. I know there are grownup people who seem to go into shock when they discover that their aged parents still enjoy sex—I think my mother would have lived longer if she'd had a boyfriend. And I know—but do not understand that folks like to hand their hard-earned money to casino owners who already have plenty of it.

Casinos are like a neon-decorated IRS.

But I'm a libertarian. If someone enjoyed cutting his fingers off and throwing them in a wishing well, I'd have to accept it. I love truckstops—they epitomize everything that's good about America, and I find excuses to write about them—but I don't expect anyone to share my joy. They have showers, washing machines, banks of phones for calling home I don't think are long for this world. Also restaurants with chicken-fried steaks. In Nevada, they have slot machines, but they also have churches, and I've never found much use for either of them.

But I wasn't in Nevada to gamble or make social commentary. I was there to sell books, with my colleague and friend Scott Bieser, who drove us out there. And that we did, meeting new readers who came by the Big Head Press table, and old friends, some of whom have been reading my books since the first one, in 1980. "Gee, Mr. Smith," says the baldheaded guy with gray on the sides, who walks with an arthritic limp. "I've been reading all of your books since I was in junior high school!"

Oh, well. Thank you very much.

It was a good show, a little bit smaller than the usual WorldCon, probably owing to the crappy mess George Bush and Barack Obama made— deliberately, I have been forced to conclude—of the healthiest and most powerful economy in the world. As has been my habit in recent years, I stuck to the dealer area and took no part of the convention proper. Why argue with a bunch of collectivists on a panel, when the books I sell will reach thousands of times the number of people in a hotel conference room, and without interruption or contradiction from "progressives" who clearly can't think their way out of a wet paper bag?

Highlights: I got to meet, visit with my publisher, Shahid Mahmud of Arc Manor/Phoenix Pick, and hand him my latest submission, Down With Power on a flashdrive, a technological first for me. Shahid is a great man with a great idea, and seems happy and excited all the time. He took Scott and me, along with a few other writers, to dinner at an extremely nice Asian restaurant—at the center of a casino—and I finally got to meet Joan Slonczewski, who got her start in SF at about the same time I did, with the same editor at the same very big-name house.

They'd probably like me to mention it.

Joan is a biology professor at Kenyon College, specializing (it says here in Wikipedia) in the molecular biology of gender. Although she is on the opposite side of almost every issue that's important to me, she argues fairly, intelligently, and enthusiastically. I enjoyed the time very much; I sincerely hope she did, too. I believe Shahid did.

The rest of the people at the table (one of them fairly famous) were left-wing stiffs in the inevitable process of devolving into nihilists because everything and everybody they'd ever worshipped, especially St. Bobo, I'd guess, has turned to Bantha pudu. They tried to hold me responsible for a remark of Heinlein's they'd willfully misunderstood, so I more or less ignored them for the rest of the meal.

Another highlight: breakfast with a number of individuals, some of whom (again) were fairly famous. After the usual introductions, I was disinclined to visit with two or three of them, obvious engineer types, who were outlining a future that will never arrive because they seemed almost perfectly ignorant of politics, economics, and the history of technology. It was a lot like listening to engineers argue over plans, say back in 1964, for building an automatic mechanical abacus.

Instead, Scott and I ended up visiting with the brothers Dani and Eytan Kollin, which was extremely entertaining. They write about colonizing asteroids. Eytan and I ended up leaving the restaurant together, once breakfast was over, and continuing our discussion. He said all of the things about libertarianism that people who don't know anything about libertarianism always say, but he suffers the cynicism of youth, and I have every confidence that he'll eventually learn better.

One thing that stood out about the convention as a whole, was that a great percentage of the usual fairy-winged creatures with Spockian ears, and the usual would-be dragon-slayers—maybe half—had given way to folks, young and old, who were of the "steam punk" persuasion. I am more than a little familiar with this genre, having written in it, mostly by accident, quite a number of times. Their Majesty's Bucketeers is a pretty fair example, as are portions of The Crystal Empire.

Tall top hats and pith helmets, usually adorned with goggles are one trademark of this fascination. Lots of British-style 19th century khaki uniforms and military leather abound. And airships, dozens of delightfully different airships. The Golden Compass was a steam punk production I found very enjoyable. Unlikely Tesla-esque weapons remind us that Warehouse 13 has a considerable steam punk component. And I guess the pirates and their airship in Stardust fall into the same category.

I like the steam punk aesthetic style, in which technology (whose bare bones are clearly, rejoicingly visible) is compelled to serve humankind, rather than the other way around. But I'm not sure whether it represents surrender—giving up on the future that Heinlein and Clarke and others laid out for us—or magnificently intransigent insistence on holding onto that future, even if it has to be achieved by other means. If the latter, then this convention was a very good sign.

But I have saved the best for last. One pair of new friends we met at our table were the Germanos, Dino and Tamela, probably somewhere between the ages of Scott and me. Both were dressed for steam punk, although regressive and stupid rules forbade them to be properly armed, he with a South American 1911 (in a wonderful but regrettably empty holster) and she wearing proper leather for a Webley revolver in .380/200.

These were clearly our kind of people, lovers of guns, knives, and most of all, of freedom, and we visited a great deal. One day Dino showed up dressed very elegantly as a Mexican gunfighter. And in an act of extreme kindness, they took Scott and me to a tiny family-style restaurant misleadingly called "The Santa Fe", tucked into the corner of a city block otherwise occupied by the world famous Harrah's Club. The place was scrupulously clean, filled with noisy, happy people, and looked like it hadn't been remodeled since at least the last Great Depression.

There wasn't a slot machine in sight.

But here's the thing: "The Santa Fe" is a Basque restaurant! I love food, and I love food from all over the world. This was some of the best that I've ever had. The room—we sat at a long table with Dino and Tamela's friends from the Society for Creative Anachronism plus a whole lot of strangers they didn't know—reminded me strongly of many an unpretentious place I'd eaten in Newfoundland, another spot on the planet of hardworking individuals unafraid to get their hands dirty.

The food? Deceptively simple. I have since looked some of it up, and the preparations can be long and complicated. Nothing was spicy, it was all just full of flavor. We started with a brown bean soup I could have made a whole meal of. Baguettes and butter. A plate of beans completely different tasting from the soup. A shredded lettuce and black olive salad with Italian dressing, and a "side dish" of lamb stew.


The main course was ... medallions, I guess you'd call them— boneless pork chops—prepared with well-cooked sweet red peppers. I had to give one of my three to Scott because I was so full. And all the time, a rough red table wine (I'm a secret Chianti lover from my college days when it was all we could afford) poured over and over again into the kind of small glass my grandmother used to drink juice from.

Plain vanilla ice cream (an alternative to "stinky white cheese") for dessert. But one more thing has to be mentioned: the Basque picon cocktail. Rather than try to describe it, here's one URL that will work:

I suspect my friends thought I wouldn't like it, but I've recently been drinking Manhattans, and it reminded me of them, only better. Very potent, too. One word of advice: skip the soda the recipe calls for. It will spoil the drink, and the Basques will think you're a wimp.

Thank you, Dino and Tamela, and Shahid. Most of all, thank you, Scott.

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