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August 5th, 2006

The Heart of a Small Boy

For a science fiction or fantasy writer, there is no bigger honor than being named Guest of Honor at the World Science Fiction Convention. (Yes, I know, the field has other awards for lifetime achievement, most notably SFWA's Grandmaster Award, but for me that will always rank second). The honor comes with an obligation, however -- you have to give a speech at the con.

Of course, any writer who's been around for a few years has probably given dozens of speeches at regional cons and book signings, in addition to sitting on hundreds of panels, so none of us are exactly strangers to public speaking. Some writers have a standard speech for all occasions, a one-size-fits-all sort of talk. Others write a new speech every year or two. Some wing it. If you are really hard up and/or lazy, you can even take questions from the audience, or ask to do an interview instead of a speech. I confess, I have resorted to all those dodges in my time, at one con or another.

A worldcon is different, though. It's the biggest honor most of us will ever get, unless the Pulitzer Fairy or the Nobel Prize Santa Claus should somehow take note of us, and it requires a real speech. Something major, memorable, substantive. A speech with some meat on its bones. Probably Robert A. Heinlein's fault. At the first of his three worldcon GOHships, in 1941, he set the template with his famous "time binding" speech and gave fans something to talk about for years (the speech he gave at his third GOHship in 1976 was rambling and incoherent and ended abruptly in mid sentence when the alarm clock on his podium went off, but never mind, third time can't always be the charm, and RAH was not in the best of health by then).

My own worldcon GOHship was in 2003 at Torcon III. I began agonizing over the right topic for that speech from the moment Toronto won the bid, and I worked on the text off and on for most of the year leading up to the convention... which might explain why I was so cheesed off when LOCUS reported afterward that I hadn't given a speech, but did an interview instead (for the record, I gave a speech AND an interview). I wasn't too thrilled by the small room that Torcon put me in either, a far cry from the grand ballrooms where the Guests of Honor always spoke when I first started attending cons in the early 70s...

Never mind, though. It wasn't my intend to complain, but to praise. I've just got gotten my copies of a new anthology from ISFic Press, edited by Mike Resnick and Joe Siclari. WORLDCON GUEST OF HONOR SPEECHES, it's called, and I'm astonished that no one thought of doing this sort of book earlier. Resnick and Siclari collect thirty-one GOH speeches in one attractive hardbound package, from Frank R. Paul's address at the very first worldcon in 1939 to Christopher Priest's talk at last year's Glasgow con. Heinlein's famous 1941 speech is here (but not his 1976 speech, mercifully), along with Philip Jose Farmer's infamous 1968 speech, two talks by the late great Robert Block, and speeches from such luminaries as Theodore Sturgeon, Donald A. Wollheim, Fritz Leiber, Doc Smith, Robert Silverberg, Harlan Ellison, and many others, all too many of whom are no longer with us. Even Hugo Gernsback himself is represented, the man for whom the Hugo Awards are named. (Siclari and Resnick have also included my own Torcon speech, "The Heart of a Small Boy," so if you're one of those who couldn't squeeze into that cramped little room in Toronto, or one of those who believed LOCUS and thought I did not give a speech, here's your chance to read what I said).

The book is not complete, alas. There are as many speeches missing as there are included, sad to say, and some of those may well be lost to us. That's certainly understandable when we're talking about the 40s and 50s, half a century ago; most of those writers are dead, and it may be no one thought to write down what they said. More puzzling, however, is the fact that the entire decade of the 90s seems to be missing, save for Joe Haldeman's speech from the 1990 worldcon in the Hague. Those writers are still around, mostly, and you'd think that some of them would have saved the text of their speeches...

Oh, well. That's a cavil, and we can hope that some more of those talks will turn up in the future, and make for a great second edition. What Siclari and Resnick have given us is good enough. If you're interested in the history of SF, the history of worldcons, the history of fandom, or would just like to sample the words and thoughts of some of the giants who built this field, this is a book you need to have. I imagine there will be copies available at this year's worldcon in LA. Those not planning to attend can order this from the ISFic Press website at
http://www.isficpress.com/WGOH.html

And speaking of LACon IV, Connie Willis is the GOH at that one. You won't want to miss HER speech, I promise you. I don't know what her subject will be, but knowing Connie, she's been working on the speech for two years, and it's sure to be as provocative as it is hilarious, and I'm certain that LACon will give her a room big enough to hold everyone who wants to hear her.

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