31st August 2004: Representing…

John Brunner died at Intersection, the Glasgow Worldcon in 1995. I always think of him at this time of year. The other time I always think of him is when I walk into a convention bar and half-expect to see him.

He was a wonderful writer and a fascinating person who didn’t suffer fools but always had an interesting angle on any question. I met him at Follycon, Eastercon 1988, my first convention. “Look,” he said, pointing at some decals above the bar. “Do those look to you like Masonic symbols?” This was the first time I’d met a writer whose work I already knew and loved, and I’m glad it was John, who was fascinating and gracious to me as a babbling fangirl newbie. I think he was a little surprised to meet someone who had read quite so many of his books — practically everyone he met in fandom would have read Stand on Zanzibar but I had read at that point over fifty of his novels. Several times that first evening at my first con, talking to him, I was swept with the feeling of “OMG, I am actually standing next to John Brunner.”

A couple of years later he was in Lancaster for the LitFest, where he was appearing with Barrington Bailey and local writer David Mace in a symposium on creating alternate history worlds. (It was terrific fun.) I knew him quite well within fandom by then, so I invited them all for a meal at my house the night before. During the course of the meal, conversation turned to comfort books. I mentioned that one of John’s early pulpy novels Into the Slave Nebula was one of mine. (They don’t make titles like that any more!) “It’s got everything I want when I’m a bit down,” I said, “Interstellar chases, adventure, good characters, blue androids, and everything coming out like ninepins at the end. It always cheers me up.” Conversation moved on, I went into the kitchen to prepare dessert. Some months after, when I was a bit down and went to pick up Into the Slave Nebula, I discovered that while I was out of the room he’d taken the book off the shelf and signed it for me. I’m not much for getting books signed, but I really cherish that one.

I went to his funeral, in September 1995. I went because his widow is Chinese, and from a culture where they believe that the importance of someone’s life is measured by how many people go to their funeral. I was a friend of John’s, but I wouldn’t have gone from Lancaster to Taunton for his funeral by usual English custom. I went in white, Chinese mourning colours. At the time I was working part-time editing a local events guide called Something Completely Different. (We had the world’s best answering machine message, it said “Hello, this is Lancaster 64201. Whoever you wanted to reach, you have got through to Something Completely Different.” This was made funnier by the fact that our number was only one digit different from the university, so we got a lot of wrong numbers.) In any case, I worked flat out on Wednesdays and Fridays, but the funeral was a Thursday, which wasn’t a work day, so I could go fairly easily.

Before I went, I posted on rec.arts.sf.written mentioning that I was going, and that if anyone had any messages I’d be happy to print them out and take them with me, or if anyone would like their name added to a card, I’d do that. I was naturally innundated by names and brief remembrances, which I duly printed out or copied onto the card.

At the actual crematorium there was a man collecting names as we went in. I think he was a funeral director. Immediately before me was reporter from the local paper. I stepped up, and the man asked me, as one question, “Name? Representing?” Maybe it was because I was following the journalist, or maybe I had the air of someone who edited an events guide and often went to things representing it. On this occasion I wasn’t, so I stared at him for a moment, until it occurred to me that I was, in fact, in bringing the messages, representing quite a lot of people. “Jo Walton,” I said. “Representing the internet.”

Posted in Life as it blossoms out in a jar or a face