The plane landed at Melbourne with a bump and a rattle. It was World SF Convention time, Aussiecon 4, and Robin and I were keen to see what was on offer. But first we had to find our hotel. Since we were staying at the Hilton, that shouldn't be too hard...
We hopped in a taxi.
"Γειά σου," said the taxi driver. "Πού θέλετε να πάτε?"
All the taxi drivers in Melbourne are Greek, except for the ones that aren't.
"The Hilton Hotel on South Wharf, please," I said.
"Δεν ξέρω όπου το ξενοδοχείο Hilton είναι." The taxi driver sounded puzzled. He dug around under the dashboard and produced a rather tattered looking book of maps. "Θα εξετάσω έναν χάρτη!"
Eventually, after much study and scratching of the head, he found where the Hilton Hotel might be and he set off to drive us there. Melbourne is a city of sloping structures, and we drove past many a curious artistic shape that pierced the skyline at surrealistic angles. I felt as if I was travelling through a picture by Magritte or Dali. It was the perfect landscape for a science fiction convention.
Eventually we reached South Wharf. There was an Exhibition Centre where the Convention itself was being held, and a Shopping Centre full of shops that weren't open because it wasn't 10.00am yet. The Hilton Hotel was between the two, and just behind it was a land locked wharf where a very large sailing ship was moored. The sails were furled, and it rocked gently to and fro.
"How did they manage to get that huge boat in there?" asked Robin. "There's no access to the sea."
"Probably it's a time machine in disguise," I suggested, "Perhaps it's a TARDIS which actually has a working chameleon circuit, unlike that decrepit pile of junk that Doctor Who stole from the Time Lords back on Gallifrey."
"Yes, that would make sense," said Robin. "Exciting isn't it?"
"I agree," I agreed.
The Hilton Hotel was hugely luxurious. The view from our room was of South Bank Promenade where, every evening, we could enjoy the huge jets of flaming gas that shot into the sky at hourly intervals, incinerating low flying seagulls for the amusement of wandering tourists. The guidebook told us that every time the jets went off they consumed a year's supply of gas for a domestic household. If you squinted just right, the spectacle looked exactly like a fleet of rocket ships taking off for Mars. Very appropriate for a science fiction convention.
The bed in our hotel room had a mattress that was two feet deep and wonderfully comfortable. When you lay down on it you fell immediately asleep and your rage at being awoken was almost homicidal.
"What more could anyone want?" I asked Rhetorically.
"Nothing," said Rhetorically to me as she fell asleep on the bed.
The room had both a shower and a bath (luxury, luxury) and it was also equipped with a hot and cold running Paris, ooh la la! Naturally I immediately indulged myself, but strangely it gave me no pleasure. It just made me sneeze.
I blew my nose and then investigated all the myriad cupboards and wardrobes in the room. In one of them I found an open safe with a combination lock. Inside the safe was a leaflet that told me how to choose my own private combination. Immediately I chose one and locked and unlocked the safe a few times just to prove that it worked. Then I put our passports in the safe and locked it firmly.
"I've put the passports in the safe," I told Robin, "so that they won't get lost or stolen."
"What a good idea," she said. "Now, let's go and investigate the convention." To hear is to obey, and so that's exactly what we did.
The Melbourne Exhibition Centre is a gigantic building with umpteen floors and a myriad of rooms on every floor. Quite honestly Aussiecon 4 was a little lost in such an enormous building and we rattled around in it. The week before the SF Convention, the centre had hosted a UN Convention and I suspect that even the entire world, as represented by UN, might have been a little bit lost in the building. Truly the centre is huge.
We registered ourselves with the convention and went exploring in order to get our bearings. Gaggles of fans gossiped in corridors and played spot the celebrity. Robert Silverberg walked past dripping groupies. Kim Stanley Robinson looked suavely intellectual. Charles Stross's flat Yorkshire vowels cut through the conversations. An American fan came up behind me and said, "Hello George."
My name is not George, but nevertheless, in the interests of international fraternity, I turned round and said, "Hello."
"Oh," said the fan, taken aback as he saw me close to for the first time, "you aren't George Martin."
"It's an easy mistake to make," I said. "After all, I am wearing the same kind of jacket and cap that George Martin wears, I have a grey beard just like George Martin has, and I am roughly the same endomorphic shape as George Martin. However when you meet the real George Martin, you will find that he is much larger than me in every single dimension, including the fourth. Also, he's a famous science fiction writer and I'm not. But other than that, we're absolutely identical."
"Sorry," said the flustered fan backing away with embarrassment, "sorry, sorry..."
The dealers room was full of stalls selling obscure books from small (mostly Australian) presses. I bought far too many of them and started to suspect that my luggage would be severely overweight when I flew home. Books are heavy. Robin bought some t-shirts, a shoulder bag, some postcards, two books with hollowed out interiors for hiding jewellery in, some jewellery for hiding in the hollowed out interiors of the books, and some small furry aliens which stretched and wriggled with pleasure when stroked.
Panel discussions on subjects both obscure and arcane took place every hour on the hour in all the myriad of tiny rooms scattered through the Exhibition Centre. Often it was hard to choose which one to attend. Mostly I think I should have chosen one of the other ones. Some of the events for children looked far more interesting than those for adults, but unfortunately I wasn't allowed in to the rooms where they were taking place because I had a beard. Children don't have beards in this universe, though they do in mine.
There was one very large room with tiered plush seating and a stage. Here the guests of honour gave their speeches.
Kim Stanley Robinson interviewed himself and refused to answer the questions that he was asked. Instead he answered the questions that he felt he should have been asked. The interviewer was left feeling very frustrated, but the interviewee spoke learnedly on Mars, Antarctica and the impact of science on society, to the benefit of all in the audience.
Shaun Tan showed us a drawing of a dinosaur that he had done when he was three years old (his mother is a hoarder and she never throws anything away).
"People ask me how I started drawing," he said. "I find this question hard to answer, so instead I just ask them why they stopped drawing. All children draw all of the time when they are young. But sooner or later, most of them stop. I just never stopped."
A perfect formula for an illustrious career as an illustrator.
After Shaun Tan's speech, Robin and I made our way back to the Hilton thinking vaguely of using the Paris for an hour or so. A fan came up to Robin and said, "Excuse me, could you ask Mr Martin to autograph a book for me?"
"I'd be happy to," said Robin, "but the man with me isn't Mr Martin."
The fan looked bewildered.
"Honest," I said in my best non-American accent. "I'm not George Martin."
The fan stared suspiciously at my convention name badge and read the name written on it. I noticed that he moved his lips as he sounded out the words to himself.
"Oh, sorry," he said and slunk away.
Robin and I carried on towards the Hilton. "I wonder how the fan knew that I was in charge of you," mused Robin. "Perhaps I give off supervisory vibrations?"
"I expect that's probably the case," I said. "You know, if the convention ever decides to have a science fiction writer look-alike competition, I think I'm in with a good chance of winning."
"Who would you enter as?" asked Robin.
I thought about it for a while, but really there was only one possible answer.
"Isaac Asimov," I said.
The convention lasted for four days. Both Robin and I had a ball as we over-indulged ourselves in food, drink, conversation and the sybaritic luxury of our hotel room. We were both sorry when it was all over. But we were looking forward to spending the next few days staying with Robin's sister Wendy, Wendy's husband Jon, the children Ella and Tilly, and Daisy the dog. The accommodation would be less luxurious than the Hilton and I for one would certainly miss the Paris, but, in compensation, there would be children to play with and a dog to take for walks. On balance, it seemed like a fair exchange.
We checked out of the Hilton and caught a taxi. The driver wasn't Greek.
"?أين يمكنني أن يأخذك" he asked.
Robin gave the driver the address that we wanted.
"لا مشكلة," said the driver and he took us straight there.
Everyone was thrilled to see us. Daisy brought us her favourite squeaky rugby ball and a saliva soaked teddy bear. Tilly had just lost a tooth and she proudly showed us the gap and the actual tooth itself that she was saving for the tooth fairy. Unfortunately she later lost it, so she had to write the tooth fairy a letter instead. But that worked just as well. Ella played us a concert on her clarinet, Wendy gave us food and Jon gave us beer and wine. The conversation and the fun flowed backwards and forwards unchecked.
And just before midnight I suddenly remembered that I'd left our passports locked securely in the safe in our room at the Hilton.