Notes from The Buffer Zone: Old-Timers

I’ve become one of the old-timers. I had an inkling of that these past few years, after I was the guest of honor at MileHiCon and watched the younger writers mill around. I had another inkling when so many of my writer and editor friends passed away recently, and I realized that conventions would not be the same.

I wrote one of these columns about that. I knew that the world had shifted. It continued to shift as writer after writer died, as I watched on social media as people who never lost their tempers with fans got angry at insensitive remarks about the death of Harlan Ellison.

Harlan was difficult at best. He alienated almost everyone on purpose. But he was also warm and generous and highly influential in sf and in literature behind the scenes. And those he had been generous with, particularly those on the liberal side of the political spectrum, had to justify their friendship with him, because he was so difficult.

Harlan would not have been tolerated in this era. He could be an abusive bully. He could also be the best friend you’ve ever had. Complex and somewhat toxic people like Harlan can no longer trade on their good traits to get people to overlook their bad ones.

And that’s a good thing. We’re revamping the culture (except, apparently, in politics), and we don’t have to tolerate the difficult people any more.

But that’s not where we were. The world has changed and we’re living it.

When changes are gradual, the way these have been, they seem almost unnoticeable. Only specific events bring the extreme difference in the past into focus.

I hit one of those events a few weeks ago. Dean and I had lunch with a highly successful indie writer. The writer has made a good deal of money self-publishing, and he’s now branching out into the wider world, going to Worldcon and NINC and Frankfurt and a whole slew of conferences.

He’s a salesman by trade, so he works the room, and he worked us a bit. He needed to impress, only it didn’t work. Normally, when I encounter a salesman who is trying that hard, I ride with it. Or I walk away from it. Because my ex was a salesman, and those techniques don’t work on me.

In this instance, though, I didn’t want to ride or undercut. I just had a lot of life experience that this guy didn’t know about at all. For example, he told us—meaning to impress—that he had met George R.R. Martin. Dean said, “Oh, you met George. Nice guy, isn’t he?” And the poor writer said, “You know him?”

At that point, Dean realized the guy had been trying to impress, so Dean looked at me—that spousal help-me look. And there was nothing I could do. We were deep in the conversation.

I said, “We’ve known George as long as we’ve known each other.” And then Dean added, “I’ve actually known him longer.”

That happened over and over and over again. The poor guy trotted out his one and only discussion with Kevin J. Anderson. And Kev and I went to college together. The indie writer mentioned some screenwriters, most of whom we’ve known for years.

Fortunately this indie writer was a smart guy. He realized that he was not going to impress us by name-dropping, so we moved to a different side of the conversation.

But all that name-dropping, and the occasional stories that we ended up having to tell—stories we don’t normally tell—like the way we’d first met George or the way that we did business with some of the other names the indie writer dropped (before the guy was out of college)—made me realize that we’re the old-timers now.

I remember sitting with Algis Budrys in a suite in the U.N. Plaza Hotel across from the United Nations in New York. AJ was trying to figure out exactly where John Campbell’s office had been. Because it had been somewhere nearby. AJ never exactly settled on where it was in relation to where we were, and I didn’t really care. What I was stunned at was the way AJ made John Campbell seem real.

Because Campbell had been, to AJ. To me, Campbell was a bit of history.

The way AJ is now to the younger writers in the field.

As a young writer, I’d been a part of a lot of those conversations. Unlike the indie writer that Dean and I had spoken to, I at least knew the history of the writers I was talking to. It wasn’t a surprise to me that Jack Williamson had known Hugo Gernsback (considered the father of SF, and the man the Hugo is named for). After all, Jack had sold his first story to Gernsback in 1929.

Now, I’m astonished that I knew someone who had written for Gernsback because 1929 seems so long ago. Then, I just hung on the stories, listening and learning.

If I’m not careful, I’m the one who can get lost in the past. The thing is that past doesn’t seem that long ago to me. Yes, I met Dean (and George) in 1986, but that was just last week. I met Kevin in 1980, and that seems slightly longer ago because Kevin is a grandfather now. (Although to me, he’s still an occasionally obnoxious 18-year-old.)

Time seems to pass in two ways. It passes moment by moment, going forward. And then, concurrently, it remains stationary. Memories are actual moments lived, and remain as vivid as they were when they occurred.

I’ve never seen that accurately represented in time travel or historical fiction. It’s something I might need to think about. Hmmm.

Story ideas—while I’m ruminating on being an old fart.

Maybe I’m not as old as I think.

Or maybe I’m just a lot harder to impress the older I’m getting.

At least I understand the looks I used to get from the old-timers in my life. Because now I give those looks to some of the younger writers around me. I try not to, but every now and then, circumstances force me into it.

Like they did during that conversation.

Guess I have to get used to being older than dirt, because I don’t plan to go anywhere soon. Which means I’ll be accruing even more stories and getting to know even more people.

And becoming an even older old-timer—who has a lot more time in her.

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One thought on “Notes from The Buffer Zone: Old-Timers

  1. Michael James Lowrey

    There’s a Hugo-winning writer out there (I think you’ve published him) who to me will always be one of the kids I used to DM for in weekend-long D&D sessions. There are guys with gray hair who say, “I remember you at cons from when *I* was a kid!” All I can think is, “May God be praised, I’m still alive to go to cons and see these people and cherish the ones I haven’t lost yet, and the neo-fans coming into this thing we all built!” The upside to growing old is, it beats the hell out of the only alternative I’ve seen offered.

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